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Partial-birth, fully delivered

National | ABORTION: Without a hostile White House, pro-lifers secure a federal ban, but now the battle will shift back to the federal courts

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

For pro-lifers, it was "deja vu all over again" on Oct. 21 as the Senate passed-for at least the sixth time-a ban on partial-birth abortions. Twice before, the dream ended with a veto message from Bill Clinton, but there will be no such rude awakening this time-not right away, at least.

President Bush was traveling in Asia, but he said in a statement that he's eager to sign the bill, which soared through the Senate 64-34 with strong bipartisan support. The president's signature on the legislation will mark the first time in 30 years that lawmakers have successfully banned an abortion procedure, making it a significant setback for the abortion industry.

Not that it caught the industry by surprise. President Bush asked specifically for a partial-birth abortion ban in his State of the Union address, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist established the bill's high profile by designating it S. 3. (Bills that receive a single-digit number are generally considered the prestige or landmark bills of each session.)

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But even with 60-some guaranteed votes in the Senate and public support of 70 percent or more, the abortion lobby managed to delay the legislation for months. The Senate first approved the current bill on March 13 by a vote of 64-33. There was a caveat, however: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) scraped together 52 votes for an amendment declaring the Senate's abiding support for the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, something the House Republican leadership could not stomach.

The House version, passed 287-133 on June 4, stripped the Harkin language from the bill, setting up a House-Senate conference to reconcile the legislation's competing versions. On Sept. 30, conferees agreed on a final bill without the Harkin amendment, and the House voted two days later. The Senate took nearly three more weeks, and still the pro-abortion forces went down fighting, asking for six hours of debate even though the outcome was never in doubt.

Even as they celebrated their biggest legislative win since Roe vs. Wade, pro-lifers were girding for a series of legal challenges. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) vowed to file suit "the day President Bush signs the bill into law." Nancy Northup, president of the abortion advocacy group, warned: "We will do everything in our power to prevent this dangerous ban from taking effect."

In addition to the CRR lawsuit, which would likely be filed in New York, pro-life strategists on Capitol Hill expect at least two more suits, one from LeRoy Carhart, the Nebraska abortionist who successfully fought an earlier state ban all the way to the Supreme Court, and another from Planned Parenthood of California, where the liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is most likely to issue an emergency injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law.

Conservatives insist, meanwhile, that the new bill addresses the constitutional concerns that sank the Nebraska law, and they say they're ready for the long, expensive legal battle that should start any day now. "This national ban on partial-birth abortion is well crafted and legally sound, and we're confident that it will survive a constitutional challenge," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. "We're poised to defend this critical measure as it makes its way through our judicial system-a challenge that will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court."

-with reporting from John Dawson

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