WASHINGTON -- In a setback for the Clinton administration that could affect national health care legislation, the Senate voted 59-40 yesterday to continue the long-standing ban on federal payments for most abortions under the Medicaid program.
The so-called Hyde amendment, through which the ban was instituted 16 years ago, was upheld by a surprisingly large margin, despite pleas from five women Democratic senators that the payments be restored. With support from President Clinton, they argued that the ban discriminates against Medicaid patients who effectively cannot afford the cost of terminating their pregnancies.
Proponents of the amendment argued, however, that federal taxpayers opposed to abortion should not be required to help pay for the procedure.
It has been estimated that if the ban were lifted, 400,000 more abortions would be performed annually at a cost of $100 million.
The decision by the Senate, which echoed an earlier vote in the House, puts the issue to rest this year. But it is likely to flare again next year when the administration proposes including abortion payments for all women in its universal health care coverage.
The wide margin of support for the ban surprised many who had believed that the president's abortion rights stance, together with the election of more women to the U.S. Senate and House, would bolster chances for overturning or significantly modifying the Hyde amendment this year.
But the House and Senate votes indicated strong sentiment in Congress for separating the issues of abortion rights and the federal financing of them.
Sounding a new theme for abortion rights backers, however, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made a strong appeal to lift the restrictions, saying, "I do not believe you can be pro-choice and not be pro-funding."
"We suffered a temporary setback," said Maryland Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, "but we intend to make a major fight [to include abortions] as we move forward on health care legislation."
Maryland's other senator, Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, also voted to lift the ban.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, described the vote as a victory for millions of Americans who do not wish to subsidize abortions.
Thirty-eight Republicans and 21 Democrats voted yesterday to continue the ban enacted in 1977 at the urging of Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., for whom it is named. Thirty-four Democrats and six Republicans voted to drop the restrictions.
The earlier House vote was an equally decisive 255-178.
Despite the decision to uphold the ban on most abortions, the language in the amendment was changed slightly this year to allow Medicaid payments for abortions in the case of rape or incest and for women whose pregnancies endangered their lives.
For many years, Mr. Hyde and his allies had resisted even this slight modification.
And this year, without having to overcome a veto on abortion rights legislation, Congress authorized the District of Columbia to provide Medicaid abortions. The Senate also voted, 51-48, to permit health insurance plans for federal employees to include abortion coverage.
Federal law now permits the states to pay for abortions for poor women, and 13 states do so.