Senate Sends Wake-up Call on Abortion

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Talk about a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing. Thursday's surprisingly close abortion votes in the Senate rattled pro-choice groups and prodded presidential candidates to tip their hands on the issue. Even as the dust was still settling after a day of emotional arguments, senators approved Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) measure calling for a ban on certain kinds of late-term abortions. The 63-34 margin was only four votes short of the majority needed to override Clinton's promised veto. Before abortion-rights proponents had a chance to process that close call, the Senate raised the stakes with another, purely symbolic vote. By a startling 51-47 margin, the Senate went on the record in support of Roe v. Wade; the slim majority gave champions of the 1973 law a sobering glance at challenges ahead. "This is going to be an absolutely huge issue in the elections," Barbara Boxer told the Associated Press.

Of course, abortion is already a huge issue for most of the candidates, and this week's Senate debate crystallizes existing, often unheralded, positions. Both Gore and Bradley recently issued statements emphasizing their commitment to the pro-choice cause; Gore referred directly to the Senate's Roe v. Wade vote, noting America is "perilously close" to having an anti-abortion majority in the Senate. Yesterday's vote also provoked an uncharacteristically blunt comment from George W. Bush, who called late-term abortion "inhumane," and urged President Clinton to sign the bill. This is a new tack for Bush, but it's one we'll be seeing more of, as TIME Washington correspondent Viveca Novak told CNN. "Bush has been getting a pass from a lot of conservative groups on his specific views on abortion," says Novak. "This trend won't continue much longer they'll be looking for answers."