WASHINGTON — Defying a White House veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted Thursday to overturn a long-standing ban on U.S. funding for overseas family planning groups that support abortion.
The vote was 53-41, short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto on an issue that has been contentious on Capitol Hill since President Reagan instituted the ban.
Even so, the vote was a sign of determination by Democrats to press for substantial changes in federal policies, even though they have only a narrow majority in the Senate.
The action came during consideration of the foreign operations bill for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The Senate bill must be reconciled with a House measure, which does not include a provision to overturn the ban. But the House measure includes another provision that has also drawn a veto threat -- one that would permit family planning groups abroad to distribute U.S.- provided contraceptives.
Shortly before the Senate vote, the White House budget office warned that if Congress sent the president a measure that "weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion, he would veto the bill."
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a longtime advocate of abortion rights, led the fight to overturn what she called the "global gag rule."
Under existing policy, no U.S. foreign aid can go to organizations that use their own money to support abortion, including counseling.
Repealing the policy, Boxer contended, "could significantly enhance the health and well-being of millions of women around the globe."
The president, she said, "speaks about how democracy should be the centerpiece of our foreign policy. . . . I ask you, what is democratic about gagging people? What is democratic about saying 'You have no right to free speech unless you agree with me'?"
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading abortion foe and a presidential candidate, warned his colleagues, "If this is in the bill, the bill will be vetoed."
Reagan imposed the ban, known as the Mexico City policy because it was announced at a conference there, and President George H.W. Bush extended it. President Clinton rescinded the policy, but the current President Bush reinstated it.
Seven Republicans joined 44 Democrats and the two independents in voting to reverse the Bush administration policy. One Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, joined 40 Republicans to vote no.