Congressional Republican leaders are aiming for passage this year of legislation that would make it a federal crime for anyone other than a parent to take a minor across a state line for an abortion.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said approval of the measure, favored by President Bush, was one of his legislative priorities for 2005.
Opponents of legalized abortion said congressional debate would be a test of whether Democrats are softening their opposition to abortion in light of the 2004 presidential elections.
“We’re seeing some of the top Democrats trying to change public perception of their position on abortion,” said Carol Tobias, political director of the National Right to Life Committee. “But I don’t see them changing the reality of their support for abortion. Democrats are in a bind. A good part of the Democratic base is for abortion.”
Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg denied that Democrats need to change their position on abortion to pick up votes.
But somewhat of a change in perception might help Democratic candidates, according to a poll by Democracy Corps, the interest group Carville and Greenberg head. The Democratic Party “can be pro-choice,” said Carville, “but not all that enthusiastic about it.”
He said the poll shows that about the same number of people fault the Democrats’ generally supportive position on abortion rights as those who criticize the Republicans overall opposition to legalized abortion.
Talk of a change on abortion by Democrats was fueled by a speech by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Jan. 24 on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. “There is,” Clinton said, “an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate.”
Last month, Howard Dean, the unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination last year and former governor of Vermont, called on Democrats who favor abortion rights to reach out to voters who oppose legalized abortion. Dean made the overture as part of his campaign to win the Democratic Party chairmanship.
Clinton’s statement drew attention because she has consistently supported abortion rights and is widely considered a possible candidate for the Democratic nomination for the White House in 2008.
“We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic, choice to many, many women,” Clinton told a group of abortion rights supporters.
She urged proponents and opponents of legalized abortion to join in an alliance to support family planning and seek approval of morning-after emergency contraceptives for victims of sexual assault to void unwanted pregnancies.
After reports that Clinton may have been trying to adjust her position on abortion, her supporters asserted that she had not changed her support for a woman’s right to choose.
“Senator Clinton was challenging (abortion rights opponents) to step to the plate and take steps to prevent unwanted pregnancies,” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in an interview. “If they don’t do it, they will show their extremism.”
Opponents of legalized abortion said they did not detect any substantive change in Clinton’s position.
Democrats are “going through soul searching on social issues,” said Brian Hart, spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the most outspoken opponents of legalized abortion in Congress.
Whether they are changing position or “changing their rhetoric is yet to be seen,” Hart said.
Douglas Johnson, federal legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said that seven of the nine new senators are expected to support legislation limiting access to abortion.
While there appears to be a gain of three to five seats for abortion rights opponents in the Senate, their side may still be short of the 60 votes increasingly needed in the case of controversial legislation or nominations.
Republican congressional leaders say they hope to win passage of the state-line measure, which the House has adopted three times but which has failed in the Senate. With Republicans holding a 55-seat majority in the Senate, prospects favor passage this year, Frist said.
Less certain are the chances for legislation proposed by Brownback that would require doctors and other personnel in abortion clinics to inform women beyond their 20th week of pregnancy that an abortion could inflict pain on the fetus and that drugs are available to relieve fetal pain.
Johnson said the most important result of the election is that the Republican majority now has an increased opportunity to confirm nominees for the Supreme Court and other federal judicial benches who might be open to overturning Roe v. Wade.
Bush’s re-election and the increase in the GOP majority showed that if senators acted to “obstruct any nominee who does not make a commitment to the pro-abortion side,” they would put themselves “at great political peril,” he said.
“Never before have abortion rights been so threatened, not only in the Supreme Court, but in Congress as well,” according to Eleanor Smeal, president of the Save Roe Campaign of the Feminist Majority.
“Both houses of Congress have not only staunch anti-abortion leadership but also majorities for restricting abortion rights,” Smeal said in a fund-raising letter.
David Westphal of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.