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Only an hour was left in the debate over Henry Foster's doomed nomination as Surgeon General last week when Senator Bob Smith, a beefy New Hampshire Republican, lumbered into the almost empty Senate chamber with a plastic fetus, an easel and six huge posters. For the next 30 minutes, he unnerved his colleagues--and the summer tourists who packed the galleries--with an excruciatingly detailed description of a medical procedure that abortion opponents call partial-birth abortion. "In illustration No. 4," Smith said calmly, "the abortionist takes a pair of scissors and inserts the scissors into the back of the skull and then opens up the scissors to make a gap in the back of the skull in order to insert a catheter to literally suck the brains from the back of that child's head."

Foster's allies were livid and rushed back to the chamber. Though the Tennessee obstetrician and gynecologist had acknowledged performing 39 abortions during his 38-year career, no one had accused him of doing or even of condoning the grisly procedure described by Smith. "It's outrageous to bring something like that on the Senate floor," Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun complained.

While Foster would go down to defeat in the final vote last Thursday, Smith's presentation will not be the last such display in Congress over the next few months. Abortion, an issue that simmered in the background during the Republicans' first months in power, is about to become the focal point of at least a dozen pieces of legislation, carefully drafted by abortion foes. Their strategy, at least for now, is not to make an all-out assault on the basic abortion right but rather to redirect the debate and whittle away at the gains the other side has made. This week alone could bring several initiatives. A House subcommittee is expected to approve legislation effectively barring insurers from offering abortion coverage to federal employees. Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra will also introduce a bill aimed at undermining new standards that require obstetrics/gynecology residents to learn abortion techniques.

Foster's nomination was the opening skirmish in what California Republican Bob Dornan promises will be Congress's "summer of life." Though apparently supported by a majority in the Senate, Foster was ultimately dragged under by the politics of the presidential campaign. Majority leader Bob Dole, fending off a play by rival Phil Gramm to curry favor with the right by staging a filibuster, deftly engineered a procedural vote under which Foster's supporters would have needed 60 votes even to debate the nomination; they fell three short, thus rejecting the nominee and robbing Gramm of all but a few minutes in the spotlight. But the real issue, as President Clinton put it, "was not about the right of the President to choose a Surgeon General. This was really a vote about every American woman's right to choose." To choose to have an abortion, that is.

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