EFFORTS by moderate Senate Republicans and the Bush administration to find a compromise on abortion-counseling regulations have stalled, at least for the foreseeable future.Now Republican House members who oppose the ban on abortion counseling in federally financed clinics are taking a stab at convincing President Bush not to veto legislation that would overturn the regulations. Four House members are collecting signatures from fellow House Republicans on a letter to Bush, stressing "the need for free and unfettered dialogue between patient and physician." The regulations, announced in 1988 but barred from implementation in most states by court injunctions, were upheld by the Supreme Court in its May 23 Rust v. Sullivan decision. The letter, being circulated by Reps. John Porter of Illinois, Susan Molinari of New York, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, and Bill Green of New York, will be delivered to Bush "after August," according to an aide to one of the congressmen. The four lawmakers expect their letter to collect 50 to 60 signatures. "To allow the regulations to be implemented will set a dangerous precedent of government involvement in the patient-doctor dialogue and will send the wrong message about the Republican Party's commitment to individual rights, freedom of speech, and minimal government involvement in the lives of the governed," the letter concludes. Bush remains adamant that he will veto any law that relaxes federal regulations on abortion. But the president has also said that he would like to see "accommodation" on the counseling ban.
Inside the White House Bush himself "is troubled by the notion that enforcing these regulations would result in economically disadvantaged women getting a different sort of care than women who can afford a private doctor," says a Senate aide familiar with the president's discussion on the matter last month with Republican Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island and Alan Simpson of Wyoming. The controversy has triggered debate among the White House staff. Of special concern is the opposition to the regulation by doctors' groups, in particular the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The president's staff is in the midst of a review of the history of how federal family-planning funds have been used. So far, though, the White House's idea of a compromise has not won many senators to its side. Last week, the Senate rejected 64 to 35 an administration-supported amendment introduced by Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota that would have forbidden abortion counseling in federally financed clinics, but would have allowed pregnant women to be referred to clinics that provide abortions. The Durenberger vote was three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. Some congressmen are hopeful that Bush will not want to prolong the uncomfortable public debate on abortion and will just sign into law a multibillion-dollar appropriations bill for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, even though it contains a provision for overturning the counseling ban. "Even if his veto isn't overridden, it would be a bad victory for Bush," says a Republican House aide who opposes the counseling ban. "It's really an issue the administration wishes would go away."
Splitting the party The Republican Party's problem with the abortion issue has come to the fore in recent days. The Young Republican National Federation - a breeding ground for future Republican politicians - voted at its convention to drop the anti-abortion plank from its platform. And the group Republicans For Choice has promised to fight at next summer's party convention to get the anti-abortion plank out of the party's platform. Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who helped draft the platform in the Ford administration, says a platform matters "because it shows the struggle among activists for the heart and soul of the party." As state legislatures have been allowed increasingly by the United States Supreme Court to curtail abortion rights, politicians' positions on abortion have become more important. But for Bush, whose popularity remains high and who still lacks a strong Democratic opponent for next year's presidential election, his strict anti-abortion stand is not a liability.
No compromise At this point, says the House Republican aide, the White House is trying to work out a compromise on the abortion-counseling ban with anti-abortion groups, not moderate Republicans. On the Senate side, informed aides see no revival of an effort by Senators Simpson and Chafee and the Bush administration to reach a compromise. In addition to the two senators' meeting with the president, they also had sessions with staff from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, which will implement the regulations. According to an aide familiar with the discussions, the White House had said it would come forward with a compromise proposal - and then came up with the Durenberger amendment, which opponents of the counseling ban found unacceptable. "The point is that a woman should be able to hear all of her legal options when she speaks with her doctor," says the aide. "The Durenberger amendment did not provide for that."