WASHINGTON -- Opening a new season of struggle over federal abortion policy, the Clinton administration plans to ask Congress to lift the nearly total ban on federal financing of abortions for poor women, White House officials say.
The move will come in President Clinton's detailed federal budget request, which is expected to be made public the week of April 4, said George Stephanopoulos, the White House communications director.
How Congress will respond and how hard Mr. Clinton will push the issue are unclear, lawmakers and legislative analysts on Capitol Hill say. Opponents of abortion say they believe they have a good chance of blocking the president.
Despite the uncertainties, Mr. Clinton's decision to seek the repeal of the 16-year-old federal prohibition, which is known as the Hyde Amendment and applies to the Medicaid program for poor people, is a sign of the dramatic change in abortion politics.
Both sides of the abortion issue predict that the next six months will test old positions, long-standing alliances and the power of the abortion-rights movement under a friendly administration.
The struggle will play out not only in the spending and budget bills that make their way through Congress this spring and summer, but also in the renewed effort to win passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, which is intended to limit the restrictions that states can impose on abortion.
Perhaps most important, both sides of the abortion issue are preparing for a fight over the wide-ranging health care program being drafted by the White House task force headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Among the proposals being considered by the task force is one that, over the long term, would dismantle the Medicaid program entirely and integrate the poor into the same network of doctors, hospitals and private insurance companies serving the more affluent.
Whether or not such a proposal is adopted, abortion-rights supporters say, reproductive-health and abortion services must be included in the basic benefits package expected to be guaranteed all Americans under the final plan.
"For too long, women's reproductive health has been left to the vagaries of politics," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, who met with top White House officials on the issue last week.
The primary goal in all these struggles, Ms. Michelman said, is "to have government return to a position of neutrality in the reproductive decisions of women."
Opponents of abortion are just as adamant about preventing abortion from becoming a routine medical service in the eyes of the law. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said of the abortion-rights forces, "They want to obliterate any distinction between abortion and contraception."
Mr. Clinton's decision to seek repeal of the Hyde Amendment is the fulfillment of a campaign promise that highlighted the gulf between him and President George Bush on abortion.
The amendment, named for its sponsor, Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, was approved by Congress in 1976 and has endured, in one version or another, with the backing of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bush.
It applies to the Medicaid program, the basic health care program for poor people, which is financed jointly by the federal government and the states.
The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of any federal money for abortions for poor women unless a woman's life is endangered by continuing the pregnancy.
According to the abortion-rights league, eight states use their own money to provide abortions to poor women in additional circumstances, including rape, incest or fetal deformity. Twelve other states pay for most or all abortions, the league says.
Mr. Stephanopoulos cast the decision as an effort to give states greater flexibility.
"The Republicans have shown consistently in their platform that they weren't prepared to allow for abortions even in cases of rape and incest," he said. "This proposal simply tries to preserve the flexibility of the states to make the tough decisions they must make."