WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to ban a procedure that critics call partial birth abortion, a triumph for President Bush and the Republicans who took control of Congress this year.
The 64-33 vote sent the legislation to the GOP-controlled House, where passage is expected this spring.
The lopsided roll call was a marked contrast to three days of emotionally charged debate in which supporters of the bill attacked the controversial procedure as barbaric and opponents said the measure was the opening salvo of a larger assault on abortion rights.
"We are well on our way" toward final passage, Sen. Rick Santorum said Wednesday night after the bill's supporters turned back a series of challenges on the Senate floor. Abortion opponents have been working for eight years to put the ban into law, and with a sympathetic president in the White House, are likely to succeed within a matter of weeks or months.
Abortion rights supporters have pledged a court challenge. "This bill is unconstitutional," argued Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., citing the lack of an exemption in cases where the health of the mother is in jeopardy.
The bill prohibits doctors from committing an "overt act" designed to kill a partially delivered fetus. Partial birth is described as a case in which the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the event of a breech delivery, if "any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
The legislation includes an exemption in cases in which the procedure is necessary to save the life of the mother.
The debate over the measure reflected hardened political lines on abortion, an issue that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said was dividing America as deeply as slavery did in the 19th century. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that women had the right to an abortion.
For much of the time since, abortion rights supporters have had enough support in Congress or the White House to fend off most attempts to restrict the rights the court identified in its 1973 ruling.
But beginning in 1995, abortion opponents have focused their efforts on the partial-birth procedure, putting their political foes on the defensive.
Congress twice before passed legislation to impose a ban, but former President Bill Clinton vetoed both measures. A third attempt was sidetracked in 2000 when the Supreme Court invalidated a Nebraska state law that closely resembled the measure moving through the House and Senate. A fourth attempt failed last year when Democrats, then in control of the Senate, refused to set a vote.
Abortion rights advocates scored one victory on Wednesday when the Senate voted 52-46 in support of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave women the right to end their pregnancies.
It was the first referendum on the 30-year-old ruling since the new Congress convened in January, and nine of the 11 newcomers to the Senate signaled opposition to the 1973 ruling.
That was a nonbinding vote, and on the legislative skirmishes that counted, abortion foes were in command.
On a vote of 60-38, the Senate first killed a proposal to ban a range of late-term abortions with exceptions for the health of the mother, exceptions that critics said rendered the prohibition all but meaningless.
Moments later, on a vote of 56-42, lawmakers rejected a call to have the bill rewritten in committee to address "constitutional issues raised by the Supreme Court" in a 2000 ruling.
Later in the day, in a final triumph for abortion foes, the Senate rejected a second attempt to substitute a ban on abortions after the fetus is viable outside the mother. That proposal included exceptions for the life and health of the mother, and failed, 60-35.
Durbin authored the proposal to ban a wider range of late-term abortions, but it drew opposition from abortion foes and abortion rights supporters as well.
It would have prohibited abortions after the point that the fetus could survive outside the mother, tempered by an exception in cases that threaten a mother's life or "risk grievous injury to her physical health."
"It doesn't ban abortion, which is what some people want. And it doesn't get the government out of the picture, which is what some other people want," he said. "Instead, it tries to draw a line, a good faith line of where we will allow abortions in late term pregnancies."