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Abortion Bill Falls 3 Votes Short Of Goal Passes 64-36, But Margin Not Enough To Override Veto

Despite a last-minute change of heart by two influential Democrats, the Senate on Tuesday failed to muster a veto-proof margin as it approved a bill to ban a controversial late-term abortion procedure.

There was strong support for the bill to outlaw the abortion technique, known as intact dilation and extraction. The ban passed, 64-36, but fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override President Clinton’s promised veto.

The House passed a similar bill in March by a veto-proof margin, so the Senate action Tuesday was a make-or-break vote for the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said they still hope to find the three additional votes to override Clinton’s expected veto.

In all, 13 Democrats and 51 Republicans voted for the bill, and 32 Democrats and four Republicans opposed it. All Northwest Democrats opposed the bill, and all Northwest Republicans supported it.

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer characterized it as a “victory” that abortion-rights advocates had sustained the votes to uphold a White House veto. But acknowledging the growing strength of abortion opponents, Boxer lamented that “a woman’s right to choose is under the fiercest attack I’ve seen since I came to Congress in 1993. … It is a sad time for our country.”

The Santorum bill would outlaw the intact dilation and extraction procedure, which involves the vaginal delivery of a fetus’s torso but not its head. A surgical incision is made in the head and the brain suctioned out, collapsing the skull and making possible the completion of delivery.

The American Medical Association endorsed the ban after Santorum modified the legislation to allow physicians to explain their actions to a state medical board before being put on trial for using the procedure.

The AMA’s endorsement, however, did little to sway opponents. The ban’s sponsors picked up only two votes from the 62 commitments they had in hand last week.

But the two Democrats who changed their minds on the ban were big catches: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate’s most senior Democrat.

Daschle’s switch came after the Senate last week decisively rejected a compromise he had authored. Daschle’s proposal would have outlawed all types of abortions performed after a fetus has reached the point of viability outside the womb. At the same time, it would have provided exemptions for women whose health would be “grievously injured” by a continued pregnancy.

By contrast, the bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday would provide exceptions only in cases where a woman’s life is in immediate danger from a continued pregnancy.

The bill also differs from Daschle’s in that it applies only to one abortion procedure. That method is used to terminate pregnancies beyond the 20th week, which means many of the abortions banned would occur before fetal viability.

The Supreme Court, in a 1973 ruling, forbade states from regulating abortions before fetal viability but allowed the regulation of abortions beyond that point.