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Using an arcane procedure and careful vote counting, Democratic pro-choice supporters won a skirmish Thursday over whether federal employees' health insurance can cover abortions.

By a 15-14 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, they killed a measure that would have prohibited insurance plans financed by the federal government from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother. The provision was approved by a subcommittee earlier this week.The margin was as narrow as it could be, and the issue is almost sure to be raised again when the bill comes to the floor of the Senate, where the outcome is not certain. But, even so, it was a welcome victory for pro-choice supporters.

First, as Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., put it, the result showed that "we will do our homework in being prepared, both on the content and the procedures. And we counted the votes."

Though Mikulski declined to offer any comparisons, her House counterparts had failed to count the votes in advance and were outdone procedurally on June 30 when the House voted to limit federally financed abortions for the poor.

Second, this issue casts a long shadow because the scope of federal employees' insurance coverage for abortions may ultimately determine what coverage is available under the national health-care plan Congress hopes to pass next year.

And if the limits on abortion coverage are kept out of the Senate version of the $22.3 billion Treasury and Postal Service Appropriations bill, that will settle the issue, because the House has already passed the bill.