WASHINGTON — The House handed a victory to anti-abortion forces Thursday when it voted to permit states to deny Medicaid funding to poor women who have abortions in cases of rape and incest.
By a vote of 215 to 206, the House upheld proposed restrictions on abortion funding that advocates said would grant states the right to spend their Medicaid money as they see fit.
The abortion issue flared during debate on a major appropriations bill. The new action came one day after the House overcame abortion opponents and voted to preserve federal aid to family planning.
The issue split the Republican Party along moderate and conservative lines and was just one of several issues that threatened to scuttle the entire appropriations bill, a $256-billion measure that would abolish dozens of education, labor and health programs, slash spending for others and rein in agencies regulating labor-management disputes.
Faced with a major test of his leadership, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his lieutenants spent Thursday courting votes from competing GOP factions who threatened to bolt and join Democrats in opposing the bill.
The defeat of the bill would be a major setback for the GOP leadership. The massive spending measure has become a focal point in the fight between Democrats and Republicans over the shape, size and objectives of the federal government.
"Democrats just don't get it," said Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.). "They don't seem to understand that we have to get spending under control."
But Democrats said that the GOP budget-balancing drive comes at the expense of the most vulnerable Americans.
"This bill more than any other bill makes the distinction" between the two political parties, said Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C.). "You cannot ignore the pain and distress you will cause millions of people."
President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure, which he called a "body blow" to efforts to increase opportunity for children and workers.
"Under the guise of balancing the budget, we are consigning millions of Americans to a more limited future," Clinton said Thursday.
The bill includes funding for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. More than three quarters of the $256 billion goes automatically to Medicare and other entitlement programs, whose costs are not controlled through the annual appropriations process.
The focus of the debate was the remaining $61 billion--almost 10% less than current levels--provided for dozens of programs, such as job training, student aid and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bill would abolish more than 170 education and labor programs and cut spending in most others. However, it would provide increases for selected programs, such as biomedical research and the Job Corps.
The measure would treat the Corporation for Public Broadcasting more generously than some expected, in light of GOP promises to eliminate federal subsidies for public radio and television. During floor debate Thursday, an amendment to eliminate the $240 million provided for the corporation--an 8% cut--was easily defeated on a 286-136 vote.
The spending bill also contains non-budgetary provisions designed to carry out central elements of the conservative agenda, including new restrictions on agencies overseeing worker protection laws and new limits on political advocacy by recipients of federal funds.
It also is home to many anti-abortion provisions, including the one that would allow states to refuse to pay for abortions in cases of rape and incest under Medicaid, a health care program for the poor that is jointly financed by the federal government and the states.
The provision was added by the House Appropriations Committee in the form of an amendment sponsored by Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.). As abortion-rights advocates tried to strike the provision during floor debate, Istook and his allies argued that the issue was one of state's rights. States should be allowed to spend their Medicaid money as they see fit, they said, and should not be forced to pay for any abortion except in cases where the life of the woman is at stake.
"Let the states decide," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "If there was one message coming from the last election it is that . . . the American people are fed up with Washington dictating to them."
Opponents said that the Istook amendment would limit poor women's access to abortion in pregnancies resulting from the most troubling circumstances. "Rape is a crime," said Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.). "Let us not punish the victims of crime."
Advocates for abortion also tried without success Thursday to strike another provision, authored by DeLay, that would allow medical schools to be accredited and receive federal funds even if they choose not to teach abortion. The vote was 235 to 189 to retain the provision.