WASHINGTON — IT'S the dominant issue surrounding the controversial nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for surgeon general. It's made some conservatives squeamish about welfare reform. And it's entered the foreign-aid debate.
The issue is abortion, and just about every day the 104th Congress is in session, this sensitive subject turns up like your least-favorite uncle. It's even affected the wording of antiterrorism legislation - altered so as not to prevent peaceful protests by abortion foes.
One reason it has become so prominent is that there are members of Congress deliberately making abortion an issue, mainly to undo measures instituted since President Clinton took office. At last count, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), which supports abortion rights, had identified 19 legislative battles involving abortion.
By appearances, anti-abortion House Republicans are trying to nibble away at a woman's right to an abortion without seriously attempting to ban the procedure outright for now.
Some members, including the right-wing Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California, a presidential candidate, have introduced a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to life.
Congressman Dornan has also introduced a bill to ban abortions by statute. Neither has gone anywhere yet.
Anti-abortion Congress members maintain theirs is not a coordinated strategy, but rather a reflection of individual members' interests. Yesterday Rep. Charles Canady (R) of Florida, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the House judiciary committee, presided over the final drafting of a bill that would ban a procedure used in late-term abortions. On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Foster nomination finally came to a head with the filibuster led by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas.
Some senators say their problem with Dr. Foster is one of credibility, not abortion, per se. The Nashville obstetrician-gynecologist had initially misstated the number of abortions he performed over his career. But if the problem had been faulty memory over a less-charged issue, the question of numbers likely would not have been a sticking point.
The bottom line is that the Foster nomination is a litmus test for senators on abortion - and only one of the many legislative matters involving the issue that are quietly working their way through a Congress markedly more hostile toward abortion than its predecessor.
Back in the House, Rep. Ernest Istook (R) of Oklahoma is expected to try again soon to pass an amendment that would deny Medicaid coverage for abortions in cases of rape and incest. Last month Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, head of the House's Pro-Life Caucus, won passage of an amendment to the foreign-aid bill that would bar funding to any group that provides abortions overseas and would end the United States' contribution to the United Nations Population Fund.
Abortion-rights advocates say their foes are just gearing up for the main event. "The real agenda is banning abortion outright," says Donna Singletary of the National Abortion Federation. "They can't hide that."
In fact, opponents of abortion don't usually hide their desire to outlaw abortion. In its Contract With the American Family, the influential Christian Coalition states: "We support constitutional and statutory protection for the unborn child."
Yet the bulk of the contract's section called "Restoring Respect for Human Life" falls far short of calling for an end to legal abortions. It focuses on three goals that are likely to pass Congress: banning so-called D & X abortions, performed in rare late-term abortions; the cutback in Medicaid funding of abortions; and the defunding of programs that the coalition says promote abortion, including the Department of Health and Human Services' Title X family-planning program.
"That's a lose-lose either way you go," says Steve Jones, spokesman for Congressman Istook. "If the Christian Coalition had said 'ban all abortions' people would jump all over that. But instead, they're criticized for being sneaky and using a guerrilla-type tactic."
To judge by the mood among abortion-rights advocates, though, they feel like the losers. When asked how they plan to counter their opponents in Congress, activists generally pause and sigh. "Pray a lot!" quips Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland, co-chairwoman of the House women's caucus and a leader of the House's pro-choice task force. So far, the task force has lost when the abortion issue has come to the full House, namely with the Smith amendment and when legislation to ban abortions in military hospitals was approved.
"We'll try every possible legislative strategy to hold the line," says James Wagoner, NARAL's political director. "But if you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes."
In the House, Mr. Wagoner says, there is a bare majority of "218 unambiguously anti-choice votes." In the Senate, he says, there's more play: Of 100 members, 45 are solidly anti-abortion, 37 or 38 favor abortion rights, and the rest are swing voters.
Ultimately, the veto power resides with pro-abortion-rights President Clinton. But abortion-rights advocates are nervous that, if presented with legislation that he finds adequate on an important issue, such as welfare, he might be willing to swallow an abortion provision he doesn't like. On welfare, the approved House bill contains a provision for a so-called "illegitimacy ratio," which NARAL says rewards states for making abortions harder to obtain.