WASHINGTON -- A powerful House committee voted yesterday to block the Bush administration's plan to prohibit federally funded family planning clinics from telling women about their legal right to an abortion.
After four hours of intense debate, the Appropriations Committee voted 35-20 to deny the administration funds to carry out the counseling ban. The committee sets federal spending.
The vote clears the way for a floor challenge next week to threcent Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban, and to President Bush's threat to veto any bill that could weaken the ban.
Abortion rights advocates said they hoped that the lopsided vote in the committee was a sign that the outcome in the full House would approach a veto-proof two-thirds margin.
"This is a good win," said William Hamilton Jr., a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood. "We expected 28 to 30 votes. To get 35 is really refreshing." When the committee vote was announced in the corridor outside the jammed hearing room, abortion rights supporters let out a victory whoop.
Abortion opponents said they expect the House vote to be "competitive" but conceded that they may not be able to reverse the committee's action.
They said they would counter with a proposal to require that parents be told if a minor daughter wanted to have an abortion. That idea has wide support in Congress and won a test vote, 28-10, in the Appropriations Committee yesterday.
"It's absurd and obscene in terms of people's right to know," said Representative David R. Obey, D-Wis., one of the six. The others were Democrats Joseph D. Early of Massachusetts and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, and Republicans Ralph Regula of Ohio, Joe Skeen of New Mexico and Jerry Lewis of California.
Mr. Obey's voice turned hoarse as he spoke, and he pleaded for Mr. Bush and congressional leaders to find compromises on abortion.
Mr. Lewis, the third-ranking Republican in the House, agonized over the decision. He told the committee about a family friend who changed her mind and decided not to have an abortion after she sought counseling at a federally funded clinic.
"Would her child be here if that counseling hadn't been available?" asked Mr. Lewis. "I can't get a clear answer to that, and I'm looking for help."
Mr. Lewis' vote was a warning signal that Mr. Bush could face a bruising fight on Capitol Hill if he sticks by his veto pledge.
"These aren't people who've flip-flopped on abortion," said Representative Les AuCoin, D-Ore., an abortion rights leader. "These are people who saw the issue in a broader context, which is why when the White House does not, it's at their peril."
Congress and Mr. Bush will square off on several abortion issues this year, including the counseling decision, funding for United Nations family planning programs and access to abortions for military women overseas.
The Appropriations Committee vote came on an amendment offered by Representative John Porter, R-Ill., to a $59 billion bill that sets spending for the government's labor, education and social programs.
Although Mr. Porter's amendment would prevent the administration from enforcing the counseling ban, it would not change the underlying law that permits the government to deny information about abortion to women. Also, since spending bills must be renewed each year, the amendment's effect would be temporary.
A bill that explicitly requires abortion counseling to be offered at federally funded clinics has been cleared for floor action in the Senate. But in the House, the bill is being held up by abortion foes, who want to add the parental notification provision.