The Senate yesterday turned back a series of challenges to a proposed ban on an especially controversial abortion procedure but voted narrowly to reaffirm its general support of the 1973 Supreme Court decision asserting a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.
The Senate plans to pass the bill today, and the House is likely to follow suit in the near future.
The votes underscored the deep split in the Senate over abortion, along with the near-certainty that Congress will approve the ban on what critics describe as "partial birth" abortions. President Bush has said he will sign it into law, and abortion rights forces have vowed to fight it in court.
The nonbinding resolution endorsing the right to abortion, approved 52 to 46, expresses the "sense of the Senate that the decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade was appropriate and secures an important constitutional right." The decision, it added, "should not be overturned."
Nine Republicans joined 42 Democrats and one independent in voting for the resolution, which was sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Five Democrats voted with 41 Republicans against it. All Maryland and Virginia senators except George Allen (R-Va.) supported the resolution.
Abortion rights forces picked up one vote since 1999, when the Senate last voted to endorse Roe v. Wade. The vote then was 51 to 47.
The "partial birth" abortion bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), seeks to bar doctors from committing an "overt act" to kill a partially delivered fetus. It would cover situations where "the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
In the first roll call on amendments offered by foes of the bill, the Senate voted 60 to 38 to reject a proposal from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to drop the Santorum proposal in favor of a ban on abortions of viable fetuses unless two physicians certify that a woman's life or physical health would be seriously threatened by continued pregnancy.
A proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to require certification by only one physician was defeated, 60 to 35.
Durbin characterized his proposal as a "reasonable middle ground" on an issue that is dividing the country as seriously as slavery did in the 1800s. But opponents said it would do little to curtail "partial birth" procedures, most of which are performed before viability, and left too much to the discretion of the physician.
Durbin's proposal wound up being opposed by some staunch abortion rights supporters as well as most abortion foes, demonstrating the difficulty of compromise on abortion.
In another vote, 56 to 42, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to send the bill to the Judiciary Committee, which Boxer contended had not considered the measure since the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law that was similar to an earlier version of the Santorum bill.
The bill's opponents contend it still runs afoul of the Supreme Court ruling on several grounds, including the lack of provisions to protect a woman's health. Santorum argued that the bill is now constitutional and says it addresses the health issue by declaring that the procedure is never necessary for health reasons.
On Tuesday, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to expand access to insurance coverage for contraceptives and emergency contraceptives in cases of rape or incest. The proposal won a bare majority but fell short of the 60 votes needed under budget rules.