WASHINGTON -- Outmaneuvering abortion foes on the Appropriations Committee, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski paved the way yesterday for a Senate vote to end a nine-year ban on federal workers receiving health insurance coverage for abortions.
While the issue promises to produce a fierce fight on the Senate floor, the 15-14 committee vote was a key victory for Ms. Mikulski and the Senate's other Democratic women, who lobbied hard in recent days -- with help from the White House -- to line up support from their male colleagues. They succeeded in blocking an amendment that would have barred the coverage.
Without the amendment, the spending bill approved by the committee yesterday would reverse the policies of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, making health insurance payment for abortions available to federal employees for the first time in almost a decade.
Under the current benefits package for 3.1 million federal workers and their families, abortion coverage was available only if the life of the mother was at stake.
Before the ban went into effect in 1984, 17,000 abortions were covered annually by federal insurance plans. President Clinton has called for the coverage to be restored, and the House's version of the appropriations bill would allow that.
The Senate committee's action yesterday stood in sharp contrast to a House vote June 30 to retain the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions for poor women through the Medicaid program. That loss took many abortion rights supporters by surprise.
Yesterday, a clearly jubilant Ms. Mikulski said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the appropriations bill's prospects in the full Senate, vowing to "work through the night" to get it through.
"Federal workers ought to have the same access to health care that people in the private or non-profit sector do," said Ms. Mikulski, who noted that most private plans cover abortion. "There is a double standard."
Her stance was supported by union representatives for federal workers.
"Abortions should be covered just like vasectomies are covered," said Noreen Gordon, vice-president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 18,000 workers at the Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn.
"A lot of people who work for the federal government cannot afford abortions," she said.
Abortion rights activists and Senate aides said they expect a tough floor fight in the Senate and a razor-thin vote sometime before Congress' August recess begins in two and a half weeks.
Abortion opponents were disappointed but said other battles are more pressing.
"This is important, but the Hyde Amendment is much more important," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "But the effect of Senator Mikulski's move is to provide abortion as a routine method of birth control."
He, too, predicted a close vote in the full Senate.
The issue flared up Tuesday when, at a Senate subcommittee hearing, Missouri Republican Christopher S. "Kit" Bond inserted an amendment barring the insurance coverage in the Senate's plan. Mr. Bond's amendment would have provided exceptions for rape and incest as well as when a woman's life was threatened.
To avoid a divisive debate, Ms. Mikulski moved yesterday to "table," or kill, Mr. Bond's provision -- a maneuver on which discussion isn't allowed.
"It was a rare procedure but these are the times that call for rare procedures," she said. "It was not a clever or cute or manipulative strategy."
Ms. Mikulski was able to win the support of several colleagues on procedural grounds, saying the debate on abortion coverage should be held before the full Senate.
"I would urge those colleagues who might not agree with my pro-choice position to support this, on the principle that national issues should be argued on the floor and not at the subcommittee level," she told them just before the vote.
Her arguments found crucial support from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the committee chairman. He said afterward that while he "would have to listen to the debate on the floor" before casting his vote in the full Senate, he agreed with Ms. Mikulski's procedural points.
"I voted aye because I have repeatedly urged the members of this committee not to bring up controversial, national issues that will require a great deal of debate and then have to be debated a second time on the floor," said Mr. Byrd.
"Let the fight be made where it ought to be made."