Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Abortion rights supporters lose a key vote in Senate
The Boston Globe
Abortion rights supporters lose a key vote in Senate

By Rick Klein, Globe Staff | March 9, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday defeated an effort to stop those who commit abortion-clinic violence from ducking legal judgments through bankruptcy, a setback for abortion rights groups and a display of the increased might of the Republican majority after last year's elections.

A similar measure was part of a bankruptcy bill the Senate passed in 2003, and opposition from House Republican leaders was the only thing that kept it from becoming law then. But Republicans picked up four Senate seats in November and the amendment failed in the Senate, 53-46, in a vote that advocates on both sides consider a harbinger for the prospects of other abortion-related matters in Congress.

''The culture of the Senate probably has changed somewhat to the right on that issue," said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who used the abortion issue to help defeat Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, last year. ''Clearly, with the freshman class that came in this year, you gained a number of prolife votes."

The stronger GOP majority could boost several initiatives designed to make abortion rarer. The legislative agenda of abortion opponents includes a federal law against taking a minor across state lines to end a pregnancy, a measure requiring doctors to inform women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant that their fetuses would experience pain during an abortion, and a ban on so-called ''morning after" abortion pills.

''The political landscape has changed significantly, and we expect to take advantage of it," said Jayd Henricks, director of congressional relations for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. ''Hopefully this vote sets the tone that we have a prolife majority, to continue to move legislation through."

The defeat of the abortion-clinic amendment removed the last obstacle to the Republican-sponsored bill to overhaul federal bankruptcy laws, making it tougher for consumers to erase their personal debts. In yesterday's session, the Senate voted 69-31 to limit further debate on that bill, clearing the way for its passage by the end of the week.

Republicans have repeatedly introduced the bankruptcy reform measure, sought for years by banks and credit-card companies to stop consumer fraud. In two previous sessions of Congress, Senate Democrats thwarted it by adding on an amendment forbidding violent antiabortion protesters from using bankruptcy to dodge fines and civil judgments against them. Both times, House Republicans chose to scuttle the entire bill rather than vote for legislation they said singled out abortion opponents.

Democrats, who say the GOP bankruptcy changes will unfairly saddle consumers with bills they can't pay, tried the same tactic yesterday This time around, they fell four votes short.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and the amendment's lead sponsor, acknowledged that the Senate's shift against abortion rights was a factor, but he said supporters of abortion rights are still a formidable force.

Schumer noted that, had four GOP senators switched votes, his amendment would have passed again, and said the fact that four Republican members defied their party leaders to vote for it in defeat was a signal that many in the GOP are uncomfortable with the party's position on abortion. The Republican senators who crossed party lines included three New Englanders -- Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine, and Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island.

''We all know, those of us who are prochoice, that we have a rougher row to hoe in this new Congress," Schumer said after the vote. ''But I don't think that this [defeat] was definitive in any way."

In recent years, the House has been more active than the Senate in pushing abortion restrictions. But Republicans now have a 55-45 Senate majority, and yesterday's vote -- while complicated by other factors -- was an early marker in the current term's abortion fight, said Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama. ''It shows that the Congress is getting more in synch with the American people, who are less and less enamored with abortion on demand," he said.