WASHINGTON -- A bill that would block the Bush administration from prohibiting abortion counseling at federally funded family planning clinics was passed by the House yesterday after a debate dominated by free speech concerns.
Technically, the abortion counseling issue was but a small clause in a $204 billion money bill for the government's health, welfare, and education programs that passed 353-74.
After the anti-abortion side backed down from a floor fight, there was no separate vote on the counseling issue.
The outcome made it clear that the May Supreme Court decision upholding the president's right to ban abortion counseling -- Rust vs. Sullivan -- has transformed the abortion debate. A free speech question of whether the government can set limits on a doctor's discussion with a patient is now part of the issue.
Signs have been evident for weeks that members of Congress who usually vote against abortion are uncomfortable with supporting the counseling ban because of the free speech issue.
That creates a tricky problem for President Bush, who has notified Congress that he will veto any bill expanding abortion rights. "Abortion is very fundamental," observed Representative John Porter, R-Ill., sponsor of a separate bill to overturn the Rust decision. "But free speech is even more fundamental."
Abortion-rights advocate Representative Les AuCoin, D-Ore., claimed that the votes to override Mr. Bush's threatened veto on the counseling ban were piling up every day.
"He'd be making our day," Mr. AuCoin said. "Ultimately, it would be breathtakingly dumb on their side."