WASHINGTON -- The highly promoted and much-lobbied effort to get Congress to force President Bush before the election into a politically sensitive veto of a new guarantee of women's abortion rights is faltering, and may not occur at all.
The so-called "Freedom of Choice Act," a measure to write abortion rights into a binding federal law with few limits, will not be put to a Senate vote any time soon, its backers in the Senate decided yesterday.
The bill also is said to be losing ground in the House, and the timetable for action there is starting to slip.
The decision to withhold the bill for now in the Senate is a switch in plans over the past few days, and represents a new reading by the bill's supporters of their apparent loss of control over crucial test votes in the Senate, a new uncertainty over the kind of bill that could be sent to the president's desk and a new assessment of political realities.
All the reassessments "may mean that we will run out of time" for action this year, one of the bill's key backers said yesterday. But that supporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to say that the measure was definitely dead for this year.
One chief lobbyist for a major abortion-rights group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the bill's current outlook: "I'd give it a good shot in the House. But in both bodies [the Senate as well as the House]? That's a stretch right now."
The key factor that changed the Senate outlook this week was that vote-counters concluded that, while they could stop a Senate filibuster long enough to get the bill up for debate, they now seem short of the support needed to bring the measure to a final vote.
One strategy being discussed among Democrats, according to lobbyists following the issue, was to assume that a strong anti-abortion view will emerge later this month at the Republican National Convention, and it would be better to act in Congress in response to that, to make a sharper political contrast.
But other lobbyists, who asked not to be identified, said they were picking up the word on Capitol Hill that the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton would prefer to handle the issue on its own, rather than have a sweeping bill emerge from Congress.
Still others said that Democrats were now convinced that the issue will be aired sufficiently in the campaign without forcing members of Congress to cast votes that they might have to explain. As one lobbyist put it: "The political need for the bill [among Democrats] has kind of diminished. The issue's doing fine on its own in the campaign; at least it is being perceived that way."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, which strongly opposes the Freedom of Choice Act, had another view.
He said the Senate leadership "fears [that] the process of voting down amendments would demonstrate how extreme the bill is, and perhaps be damaging to the political ticket [of Clinton-Gore]."
Even the measure's strongest supporters were conceding that they would have problems with some of the proposed amendments -- especially one that has just emerged from a Senate member normally counted as an abortion-rights advocate, Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire. His alternative would substitute the Supreme Court's June 29 decision -- reaffirming a right to abortion but allowing the states to adopt any restrictions that do not put an "undue burden" on the right to abortion.
Proposals like that, said a leading staff member of a major abortion-rights group, may make it impossible "to have a clean up-or-down vote on Roe vs. Wade" -- the court's original 1973 abortion decision, which went considerably further than the court's latest ruling.
Democrats have been determined to try to embarrass Mr. Bush among independent and suburban voters, who supposedly favor abortion rights, by sending a strong new bill to his desk for a certain veto in the midst of the presidential campaign. The right to abortion was supported strongly at the Democratic convention last month.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, in fact, told the convention he would bring the measure before the Senate in a matter of weeks: "We'll debate it. We'll vote on it. And we'll pass it."
Now, none of that may occur. Mr. Mitchell yesterday cited the fact that the bill now faces a significant number of amendments and that its sponsors want to assess their effects on Senate voting.
An effort will be made to create some pressure on the Senate by getting the House to pass the measure at least no later than September.