For antiabortion activists, the new session of Congress is off to a dismal start. The House of Representatives changed its rules, with the likely effect of blocking debate on abortion funding. In the Senate, Mark O. Hatfield (R-Oreg.) has retreated to the sidelines, with no plans to reintroduce a compromise prolife bill from last year.

Many observers believe a Hatfield-sponsored bill would fare better than Sen. Jesse Helms’s measures have. But friction between Hatfield and prolifers heated up in December when he led a Senate floor fight against the Ashbrook Amendment, designed to exclude abortion funding from federal employees’ health insurance plans.

A subcommittee quietly tacked the amendment on to a “must pass” continuing resolution to keep the government financially solvent. In the flurry of year-end activity, it passed unnoticed by Hatfield and the rest of the powerful Appropriations Committee he chairs.

Stung at being tricked, and sticking to his long-stated opposition to appropriations “riders,” Hatfield argued that it is wrong to let the federal government tell its employees how they may or may not spend money for health care. The rider was defeated 49 to 48—the margin that defeated Helms’s bill last fall—indicating that senators’ positions on the issue are well defined.

To the detriment of the prolife cause, Hatfield’s battle scars from his confrontation with Helms last fall, (CT, Oct. 22, 1982, p. 56), as well as the Ashbrook tussle, left him reticent about supporting any prolife legislation. According to staff members, Hatfield believes the Senate needs “a little relief” from divisive social issues. He will decide whether he and his staff have the time and emotional stamina to enter the fray once more.

Any senator willing to lead the prolife charge will find the issue dominates a lion’s share of his staff’s time, and makes him a lightning rod for press attention, much of it critical. Hatfield’s first priority will be economic issues confronting his Oregon constituents and the work of the Appropriations Committee. Renewed involvement in the abortion issue, if it comes at all, will most likely be in peripheral but important areas—promoting alternatives such as adoption, for instance.

Prolife activist Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), said, “I never dreamed we would spend half our time fighting Mark Hatfield. We don’t like riders on appropriations bills either, but it is the only way to address abortion funding.” Ashbrook defenders say it would make federal policy consistent. Currently the Hyde Amendment prohibits use of Medicaid money to pay for abortions. It is inconsistent, Johnson says, for the government to deny tax money to poor women on Medicaid while providing it, via health insurance coverage, to relatively well-off federal employees.

The Ashbrook amendment passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin last year before the Senate fight began. But if new procedural rules approved January 3 had been in place then, it probably would have been defeated. Under the new rules, the full House will have to vote to open up an appropriations bill before riders (like Ashbrook) are considered, NRLC terms the rule “an easy procedural escape route” for congressmen who prefer to duck the issue. Riders have been used by liberal and conservative members of Congress to oppose funding for the Vietnam War, forced school busing, and wilderness development, as well as abortion.

Supporters of the new rule claim it will prevent time-consuming forced debates on issues Congress is unprepared to address. They say riders “disrupt and undermine the normal authorizing process of Congress.” Riders tend to be “last resort” steps taken when a member of Congress has failed to gain committee consideration or approval for legislation.

Johnson believes even the well-established Hyde Amendment may be endangered by the new rule. Like Ashbrook, it must be passed with each new continuing resolution since efforts to legislate abortion funding restrictions into permanent law have not succeeded. Even though Hyde and Ashbrook have attracted support from a majority of House members, Johnson said many of these representatives would rather avoid the controversy altogether and vote to prevent riders from being considered.


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