Monday, September 29, 2003

Congress is close to passing a bill that will ban partial-birth abortion, but Senate Republicans want to remove an amendment that Democrats support and that could prevent the legislation from passing both chambers.

Senate Republicans are confident that the Senate will pass the bill this week and send it to the president.

“We’re going to get the bill passed, and we’re going to get it signed,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.

The Senate bill contains an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, that expresses support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws against abortion.

However, Republicans plan to strip out the Harkin language as the bill is completed in a House-Senate conference committee this week, said Mr. Santorum, a member of the conference committee. He also said they may “tighten up” some bill provisions to ensure that opponents can’t find any toeholds to argue against the bill’s constitutionality.

“We think we have a solid bill,” he said.

Even opponents of the bill admit it will pass, and that President Bush will sign it. Pro-choice groups plan to challenge it immediately in court. They and some lawmakers say the legislation is just as unconstitutional as a Nebraska ban that the Supreme Court struck down in 2000, because it defines the procedure too broadly and would not allow partial-birth abortion to protect the mother’s health.

Supporters of the ban say they have addressed those issues in the current legislation, in part by providing a more precise definition of the procedure.

The legislation does not include a “health exception” but instead includes a lengthy “findings” section, stating that medical evidence presented in congressional hearings shows that partial-birth abortion poses serious risks to women’s health, is never medically needed and is outside the standards of medical care.

In a partial-birth abortion — also known as dilation and extraction — the baby is partially delivered before its skull is pierced and its brain is extracted.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats and conference committee members, have vowed to fight to keep the Harkin language. At least one Senate Republican aide suggested this week that the bill supporters also may want to keep the language, if it ensures that the final bill can pass the Senate easily and with a large vote.

“We’re trying to figure out whose votes it may affect,” the unidentified Senate Republican aide said, adding that it’s only symbolic language and may not be worth fighting over.

Most bill supporters shot down that theory.

“Categorically and unequivocally” the Harkin language is coming out and the bill will pass the Senate with “no problem,” said an unidentified Senate Republican leadership aide.

A bipartisan group of 17 senators voted in favor of the Harkin language as well as the Senate bill, which passed 64-33. The question is whether some of those senators would switch and oppose the final bill if that language is removed.

Democrats could try to block the bill by filibuster, but a Senate Democratic aide involved in the issue said, “I don’t think we have the … votes to filibuster,” calling it “a long shot at best.”

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