WASHINGTON - Encouraged by election wins in November, anti-abortion groups say their chances of persuading the Senate to approve new abortion restrictions and to confirm abortion foes to the federal judiciary have improved sharply.
Republicans are still short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate, where many abortion restrictions have been defeated in the past.
But abortion rights opponents have gained from the election. The Senate will have five new members who are fiercely opposed to abortion, and Democrats are soul-searching on the issue after their election losses.
"There is no question that pro-choice forces have lost ground in the U.S. Senate," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, an advocate of abortion rights.
"There was a time when the Senate was the protector of a woman's right to choose. I believe those days are gone, and I say that with a heavy, heavy heart."
The Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council and other conservative groups say their top priority in the next session will be ensuring that abortion opponents are appointed to the federal bench and to the Supreme Court, where at least one vacancy is expected.
They hope to push at least two bills through the next Congress, which convenes in January. One would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines to circumvent state laws requiring parental consent for abortion. The other would require physicians to inform patients seeking abortions who are more than 20 weeks' pregnant that the fetus could feel pain during the procedure.
Conservatives have pushed for the first bill since 1998, and it has passed the House three times. But it has never been taken up by the Senate.
The November election increased Republican membership in the Senate from 51 to 55.
Boxer said she feared that a nonbinding resolution she intended to introduce expressing the Senate's support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, might not pass. Abortion opponents "are very emboldened. It is going to be a very, very challenging time," she said.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, one of the leading groups that lobbies on Capitol Hill against abortion rights, said the parental consent legislation had the best chance of passing because it had passed the House and would be a hard bill for Democrats to oppose.
He said the measure was intended to ensure that teenagers were not pressured into abortions by the "impregnating males - often much older - and persons in the abortion industry who do not have their best interests at stake."
Johnson said the notion that parents should have a say in what their teenage daughters decided to do about their pregnancies had such resonance with voters that "it might draw support from some Democrats."
Supporters of abortion rights argue, however, that girls who travel across state lines to seek abortions usually do so because they face dire consequences if they tell their parents.
The Hope Clinic, a for-profit abortion clinic in Illinois, a state with no parental consent requirement for abortion, said that it sometimes sees teenage girls from neighboring Missouri, where parental consent is required for abortion.
Some of those girls come with their parents, but some do not, said clinic director Sally Burgess. She said she was unable to supply the exact number of girls who came from out of state without parental consent.
"Very rarely, we'll have the teenager who just doesn't want to talk to Mom," she said. "Most often, when these cases occur, there is a very good reason."
The other legislation that anti-abortion foes hope will pass in the coming congressional session is the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act.
Once informed that Congress has determined that fetuses can feel pain during an abortion, if the patient opted to proceed, the doctor would be required to offer to administer anesthetic to the fetus. Abortion providers who failed to inform women could face fines, and they could lose their medical licenses for repeated infractions.
The bill was introduced in May but was not considered by any committee of Congress. Abortion opponents believe the election results have improved its prospects.
"We certainly expect to have hearings on this early, within the first three months of the session," said Jayd Henricks, legislative liaison with the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying group. "The prospects of getting a vote in the House on it are good - in the Senate, more difficult."
Critics say the legislation is based on dubious science, interferes with a physician's relationship with a patient and is meant to intimidate women who are seeking abortions.
Some abortion opponents say their greatest challenge might be engaging an administration that will be focusing on such massive legislative challenges as reforming Social Security and reworking the tax code. They worry that unless Bush pressures Congress to take up the abortion legislation, lawmakers will choose not to.
"We are very worried," Henricks said, adding that Bush's priorities were clear: "Social Security, the war on terrorism, the economy. It seems that some of these social issues, especially pro-life issues, would fall into the next tier of priorities.
"That would be a shame," she said, "when exit polls indicated that social conservative issues really helped the president and some other Republican congressional candidates win."
Social conservatives say it would take only the occasional foray to the bully pulpit and limited lobbying by the president to ensure passage of their legislative agenda in the new political atmosphere in Congress.
Supporters of abortion rights fear that Democrats might not hold the line against further abortion restrictions because the party is eager to show it connects with voters on values.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.