WASHINGTON -- Mounting frustration among women and blacks, many of them freshmen members of Congress, exploded in a near shoving match on the House floor yesterday as conservative forces won a fight to maintain a 16-year ban on federally financed abortions for poor women.
"White Southern males still think they know what's best for poor women; the women have no choice," fumed Rep. Corrine Brown, a black freshman Democrat from Florida after the vote. "I've been here for five months, and things are still run by white men in blue suits."
In the first big test of the year on abortion, the House voted 255-178 in favor of its long-standing position to limit Medicaid abortions to cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is endangered by pregnancy.
The margin of victory for abortion foes signals poor prospects for the Freedom of Choice Act, which would limit restrictions states can impose on abortion.
It also threatens chances of abortion coverage being included in the president's health care legislation.
"It certainly wasn't a great day; in fact, it was most nasty and unpleasant," observed Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat who had been hopeful the ban on Medicaid abortions would be lifted.
Aides to President Clinton, who supports lifting the abortion restrictions, remained optimistic that more moderate language would come out of a joint conference committee with the Senate on the appropriation bill for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., another leading abortion rights advocate, said it was clear the influx of 114 new members in the House had not yet significantly changed the sentiment on abortion.
Among the Maryland delegation, the following Republican representatives voted in favor of keeping the ban: Roscoe G. Bartlett, Helen Delich Bentley and Wayne T. Gilchrest.
Voting against the ban were the following Democratic representatives: Benjamin L. Cardin, Steny H. Hoyer, Albert R. Wynn and Kweisi Mfume. Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Montgomery County Republican, also voted in favor of lifting the ban.
The vote came in the midst of an emotional power struggle over procedure that took on racial overtones.
"We tell people: 'You can't have a job, you can't have an education, you can't have a decent place to live, but here's what we'll do, we'll give you a free abortion,' " observed Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who has sponsored the so-called Hyde amendment for nearly two decades.
He suggested, in a reference he later attributed to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, that some advocates of abortion take the view that, "There are too many of you people and we want to refine . . . the breed."
When Rep. Cardiss Collins, a black Chicago Democrat, announced she was "offended by that kind of debate," Mr. Hyde retorted: "I probably know your district better than you do. Talk to your ministers."
Pandemonium broke out as Mr. Hyde crossed the chamber to offer an apology to Ms. Collins and wound up offending much of the Women's Caucus and the Black Caucus.
Rep. Carrie Meek, a black Florida Democrat, was in tears and was consoled by colleagues when Mr. Hyde returned to his side of the aisle.
"He came over here and said: 'I'm trying to help poor black kids,' " reported Representative Brown, the Florida freshman, who expressed anger at conservative Republicans who oppose money for job training and other programs designed to help inner-city youth. "What hypocrites!"
Later, Mr. Hyde apologized on the House floor and ordered his remarks to Ms. Collins stricken from the record.
Yesterday's outburst was partly the result of long-simmering resentments among more liberal members who feel much needed new social spending is being forced to take a back seat to deficit reduction.
"I think there's a lot more going on here than just abortion," said Rep. Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The disappointment among freshmen is more poignant because they came to Congress hoping to move the country more rapidly than they've been able to."
Caught in the cross-fire was Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, who had intended to offer a more liberal alternative to Mr. Hyde's proposal but withdrew it after administration officials calculated it would lose.
Judged a traitor
Mr. Obey was judged a traitor by his abortion rights colleagues on the floor, who shouted down his attempt to explain what he was doing.
"I don't give a damn what you do," Ms. Collins shouted at Mr. Obey at one point.
Representative Mfume, the Maryland Democrat who is chairman the Black Caucus, spent much of the fracas trying to calm his colleagues.
"I keep trying to tell people: 'Don't get mad, get even,' " he explained. "There will be ample opportunities in the future to deal with this."
Mr. Hyde, who resurrected his anti-abortion language after it had been stricken from the bill on a procedural maneuver, acknowledged most of his colleagues would rather not have to deal with the matter.
Important to many
"A lot of people in the middle just wish it would go away," he said. "No one's comfortable with a volatile, emotional issue. It takes a lot out of us. But some of us think it's so important we have to."
With the influx of newcomers and the leadership of a new Democratic president, abortion rights advocates in the House had expected today's vote to signal a more sympathetic climate for other abortion battles to come.
President Clinton had dropped the Hyde amendment from his budget proposal, but it was restored in the House Appropriations Committee by its chairman, Rep. William H. Natcher, a Kentucky Democrat who opposes abortion.
Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., successfully challenged Mr. Natcher's amendment on the House floor yesterday, arguing it violated the rule against legislating on an appropriations bill. But the conservative forces managed to resurrect it in a procedurally acceptable form.