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Senate Upholds Veto of Late-Term Abortion Ban

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate on Thursday upheld President Clinton’s veto of a bill that would have outlawed a controversial late-term abortion procedure, an issue that could tip scales in congressional elections but so far has failed to resonate in the presidential campaign.

But even as senators rebuffed efforts to ban what critics call “partial-birth abortion,” foes of abortion plotted a move in the high-stakes game of presidential politics.

“It’s a winning issue” for Bob Dole, insisted Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, who renewed calls for the Republican nominee to confront Clinton over his April veto of the bill banning the procedure.

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Fifty-seven senators voted to override the veto, nine short of the two-thirds majority needed. Forty-one lawmakers sided with Clinton. Both California senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted to sustain the veto. The House had voted, 285 to 137, to override the veto.

“I am convinced that when people understand that this bill as it is drafted will lead to the death of women, to the devastation of families, that the American people will side with this courageous decision of the president,” Boxer said.

The Dole campaign responded to the vote with a stinging denunciation of Clinton’s veto. “Bob Dole knows, like every mother and father, that there is no defense--none--for a procedure so cruel that even members of Bill Clinton’s own party describe it as ‘infanticide,’ ” said Christina Martin, deputy press secretary for the campaign. “Every woman and man in America should demand that Bill Clinton explain his defense of this barbaric procedure.”

Antiabortion groups have focused on the procedure, which doctors say is rarely used, partly because of its gruesome nature--the fetus is partly delivered through the birth canal before the doctor kills it by removing the brain. The procedure is generally used when the fetuses have fatal birth defects or when the mother’s health is in jeopardy.

Clinton said he vetoed the bill because it failed to provide an exception in cases where the health or life of the mother is at risk.

“We are using the lives of a few women to make inflammatory and divisive debates across this country, and I know that many women are as offended as I am,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

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Political analysts said Dole will have to overcome many obstacles if he is to gain political mileage from a debate that has riven both the House and Senate for much of the last year. Dole’s own party is split over abortion in general, and public opinion polls show that most respondents favor giving women the right to have abortions.

But abortion foes believe that they have begun to pry many Americans away from blanket support of abortion by focusing on the controversial procedure, which is used to terminate pregnancies after 20 weeks of gestation. If they can raise the debate to the presidential level, they hope, it would hurt Clinton, whom they have denounced as “the abortion president.”

At the very least, they say, they could raise awareness of the issue beyond the 28% of Americans who now say they are familiar with it.

“Bill Clinton’s going to be on the defensive on this one,” Reed said Thursday. “He’s the one who’s denying he’s a liberal. This issue gives the lie to his efforts to portray himself as moderate.”

Reed said he hopes Dole will seize the offensive on the issue in his first presidential debate with Clinton, scheduled for Oct. 6.

“It could stagger Clinton,” Reed said. He added that a spirited Dole assault on the issue also could help draw two key groups of swing voters--conservative Southerners and ethnic Catholics from the industrial Midwest--into the Dole camp.

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Several senators who voted to sustain the veto acknowledged that the chamber will probably return to the issue next year. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said many lawmakers who have voted against a ban are likely to try to craft a bill to ban the procedure but provide a broader exemption for women whose long-term health and fertility would be imperiled by a continuing pregnancy. Clinton has said he would sign such a bill.

Boxer tried to win the necessary unanimous support for approval of a revision allowing the procedure when the health of the mother was at risk, but Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), blocked the move. “That there is a health reason to perform this abortion is factually incorrect according to a broad spectrum of physicians,” he said.

Daschle said the amendment was proposed because “we want to make the point that we are all opposed to this practice in those cases where it doesn’t involve the life and the health of the mother.”

The bill that Clinton vetoed contained a narrow exemption allowing the procedure only in instances where the life of a mother is in imminent danger.

The debate over the late-term abortion procedure is expected to play a role in at least six hotly contested House races and six Senate races.

In the Dole camp, vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp and advisor William J. Bennett are said to be pressing the candidate to confront Clinton on the issue.

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Republican political analyst Ed Goeas said Clinton’s veto has made him potentially vulnerable with Americans and that the president’s testy exchanges with reporters on the issue should embolden Dole to go on the attack.

“We see in focus groups that it does change people’s feeling about Clinton’s character,” said Goeas. The procedure “is seen as crossing a line between right and wrong, and Bill Clinton is seen as being more liberal when his position is seen as vetoing what Congress did.”

But while Goeas suggested that Dole should continue to “gig” Clinton on the issue, he acknowledged that public awareness of the late-term abortion procedure is still so low that Dole would have to make a major investment--in commercials as well as speeches--if he is to gain some advantage on the issue.

“It is disturbing that this complicated medical issue is being exploited for political reasons,” said Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “The goal of those who wish to ban this procedure is to ban all abortion, procedure by procedure.”

Times wire services contributed to this story.

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