The Senate on Monday took the first step toward passage of a measure banning a controversial abortion procedure, the first in a string of causes that conservatives hope will be enacted into law by Republicans who control the Congress and the White House.
Bills to outlaw the procedure called "partial-birth" abortion by its opponents easily passed Congress twice -- in 1996 and 1997 -- only to be vetoed by President Clinton.
But President Bush has pledged to sign a bill that the White House said Monday would ban an "abhorrent procedure."
Abortion-rights advocates concede they more than likely lack the votes to defeat the measure in either chamber of Congress. Instead, they have vowed to challenge the ban in court.
The Senate began debating the proposed ban Monday, with a vote expected this week. The House is likely to take up the issue in the spring.
Some experts say the law would apply to only a small percentage of the 1.3 million abortions performed annually in the United States. But the push to outlaw the procedure carries symbolic significance for both sides of the debate.
Abortion foes see it as providing momentum to their cause. Supporters of abortion rights see it as a possible step toward further restrictions.
The antiabortion measure is among a full plate of economic and social issues dear to conservatives that is beginning to move through Congress.
Although a Democratic-led filibuster in the Senate blocked the president's appointment of a conservative Latino lawyer to a judicial post, Congress is preparing to act on measures that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, provide government funding to faith-based charities and limit medical malpractice awards -- even as the nation prepares for a possible war with Iraq.
"These are issues that have been simmering in the souls [of conservatives] for years, and now's the time -- with Bush in the White House and Republicans in charge of Congress -- to resolve them," said Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.
Some of these measures face uncertain prospects. But the move to ban removing a midterm fetus intact, sought by conservatives since 1995, is among those most likely to become law.
"I'm confident we can pass it," Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) said Monday.
The abortion issue has been one of the most heated on Capitol Hill, evoking raw emotions and galvanizing each party's political bases.
The procedure under debate is the most common used to end pregnancies of between 20 and 26 weeks' duration because it prevents excessive bleeding and is considered the safest for women. According to statistics for 2000 compiled by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that collects data on sexual and reproductive health, it is used in only 0.17% of all abortions. Ninety percent of the nation's abortions occur in the first 13 weeks.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the ban's leading sponsor, said the measure would prohibit a "brutal, savage procedure."
"This is closer to infanticide than it is abortion," Santorum said at a news conference before the debate. "This is about drawing some sort of line that says, 'Enough is enough.' "
During the opening debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) responded, "We're senators here, not doctors."
"As we stand on the brink of war," added Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) "... I cannot believe that the Senate leadership can find no more pressing national issue for the Senate to consider right now than abortion."
Abortion-rights advocates contend that the measure is unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 struck down a Nebraska law banning this type of abortion because it failed to provide adequate protection for the health of the mother. The description of the procedure also was described as vague and might apply to other types of abortions.
Abortion-rights advocates contend that the Senate measure contains the same flaws as the ban struck down by the Supreme Court, such as failing to provide an exception to allow the procedure if it is best for a woman's health.
GOP leaders say the Senate measure has been written to withstand a legal challenge.
To coincide with the debate, the White House on Monday issued a statement calling the bill "morally imperative and constitutionally permissible." The administration opposed any effort to provide further exceptions, saying they could create "open-ended loopholes and allow use of the procedure even in the third trimester."
Kate Michelman, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, called the bill a "dangerous piece of legislation" that would "directly insert government between a doctor and his or her patient."
Among those opposing the measure is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which said it found "disturbing that legislators would take any action that would supersede the medical judgment of a trained physician, in consultation with a patient, as to what is the safest and most appropriate medical procedure."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said that although the law would apply to relatively few of the abortions performed annually, "if a virus killed 2,200 premature infants in neonatal units, it would be reported as an epidemic. No one would say, 'That's only a fraction of all the preemies in neonatal units.' "
He said he was "guardedly optimistic" that the ban would become law. If it does, he added, he expects the Supreme Court to have the last word.