WASHINGTON — HENRY FOSTER insists that his nomination to be surgeon general is not ''about abortion.''
But, in fact, that is what it has become. And as a Senate committee began consideration this week of Dr. Foster's qualifications for the post, it signaled the end of a near cease-fire in Congress's abortion wars.
It also heralds the reemergence of prickly social issues, including school prayer and affirmative action, that were largely not dealt with in Congress's first 100 days. It will be the first major test, too, of the anti-abortion credentials of two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination: Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
The pro-life movement has been disappointed by GOP leaders this year. On the Foster nomination, anti-abortion activists expect the Senate leadership to do all it can to defeat the Tennessee obstetrician-gynecologist, who, on his nomination in February, understated the number of abortions he had performed.
But some anti-abortion supporters won't be satisfied just with Foster's defeat. They want senators opposed to abortion to say they are voting against Foster because of his abortion record and not hide behind objections to a ''lack of credibility.''
''Many Republicans are uncomfortable saying that their opposition is over abortion,'' says Jeffrey Bell, a Republican anti-abortion activist. ''It's the issue that dare not speak its name.''
Foster and his supporters have expressed enormous frustration over a feeling that he has become a caricature: ''Dr. Foster, the abortionist.'' On the first day of hearings, Foster fairly leapt out of his chair with enthusiasm for the opportunity to define himself as a doctor who has delivered thousands of babies, set up an award-winning program to help teens avoid pregnancy, and is a leading medical educator.
But the skirmishing over his abortion record has left him facing an uphill battle even to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Dole has threatened to bar such a vote, and there is talk of a Republican filibuster if floor debate begins.
In the broader abortion wars, this could be only the beginning of a new wave of battles. In the House, where the issue was intentionally kept on the back burner during the charged first 100 days, anti-abortion members are talking about trying such moves as defunding test trials for the anti-abortion pill; reinstating a ban on discussion of abortion in federally funded clinics; barring the District of Columbia from spending its money on abortions; and establishing a nationwide, 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.
When abortion did come up during the House's consideration of the Contract With America, anti-abortion members were sidelined. A $17 billion spending-cuts bill was almost derailed by an amendment barring state funding of abortions in cases of rape and incest. Moderate Republicans had threatened to revolt over the amendment, so House Speaker Newt Gingrich nixed it. The pro-life movement also lost in its effort to maintain welfare payments to teenage mothers, who would lose their benefits under the GOP welfare reform.
These moves have caused consternation among social conservatives, some of whom may even consider backing an anti-abortion third-party candidate in 1996, says anti-abortion activist Mr. Bell. In March, Bell asserted that the Republican Party would soon be ''operationally pro-choice.'' Since then, he says, ''the burden has only increased on pro-life [members] to turn the situation around.''
Even the commitment from Senator Gramm to oppose abortions is facing questions from some social conservatives. He has been reluctant to discuss abortion in public and has not ruled out a pro-choice running mate. But Gramm is preparing some sharply conservative speeches.
''Dole has been out-Robertsoning him,'' says James Wagoner, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League vice president, referring to Christian conservative Pat Robertson.
''A number of candidates for the nomination are trying to satisfy the right wing of the [Republican] Party while not losing the center,'' says Ann Lewis, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood.
Abortion is one of the most troublesome issues for Republicans, whose party has active Christian conservatives fighting to keep the anti-abortion plank in the Republican platform and nominate an anti-abortion ticket. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is running for president as the only Republican who aggressively supports abortion rights.
For President Clinton, the Foster nomination is a chance to show he will stick by an embattled nominee. And he keeps the abortion issue and GOP division in the spotlight. Clinton is also taking part in a new political trend of saying that one is ''pro-life'' and ''pro-choice.'' That's how he characterized Foster this week.