Encouraged by election wins in November, anti-abortion groups say their chances of persuading the Senate to approve abortion restrictions and to confirm abortion foes to the federal judiciary have improved substantially.
Republicans are still short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate, where many abortion restrictions have been defeated in the past. But opponents of abortion rights have gained from the election. The Senate will have five new members who are fiercely opposed to abortion, and Democrats are soul-searching on the issue after election losses."There is no question that pro-choice forces have lost ground in the U.S. Senate," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., an advocate of abortion rights. "There was a time when the Senate was the protector of a woman's right to choose. I believe those days are gone, and I say that with a heavy, heavy heart."
The Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council and other conservative groups say their top priority in the upcoming session will be ensuring that abortion opponents are appointed to the federal bench and to the Supreme Court, where at least one vacancy is expected.
They also are hoping to push at least two bills through the next Congress, which convenes in January.
One would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines to circumvent state laws requiring parental consent for abortion.
The other would require physicians to inform patients seeking abortions who are more than 20 weeks pregnant that their fetus could feel pain during the procedure.
Conservatives have pushed for the first bill since 1998, and it has passed the House three times. But it has never been taken up by the Senate.
The November election increased the GOP membership in the Senate from 51 to 55.
Boxer said she feared that a nonbinding resolution she intended to introduce expressing the Senate's support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, may not pass. Abortion opponents "are very emboldened. It is going to be a very, very challenging time," she said.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, one of the leading groups that lobbies on Capitol Hill against abortion rights, said the parental consent legislation had the best chance of passing because it had already passed the House and would be a hard bill for Democrats to oppose.
He said the measure was intended to ensure that teenagers were not pressured into abortions by the "impregnating males - often much older - and persons in the abortion industry who do not have their best interests at stake."
Johnson said the notion that parents should have a say in what their teenage daughters decided to do about their pregnancies had such resonance with voters that "it might draw support from some Democrats."
Supporters of abortion rights argue, however, that girls who travel across state lines to seek abortions usually do so because they face dire consequences if they tell their parents.
The other legislation that abortion foes hope will pass in the coming congressional session is the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. The act would require doctors to inform any woman seeking an abortion who is at least 20 weeks pregnant that Congress has determined that fetuses can feel pain during abortions.
If the woman opted to proceed, the doctor would be required to offer to administer anesthetic to the fetus. Providers who failed to inform women could face fines, and they could lose their medical licenses for repeated infractions.
The bill was introduced in May but was not considered by any committee of Congress. Abortion opponents believe the November election results have improved its prospects.
Critics say the legislation is based on dubious science, interferes with a physician's relationship with a patient and is meant to intimidate women who are seeking abortions.
Social conservatives say it would take only the occasional foray to the bully pulpit and limited lobbying by the president to ensure passage of their legislative agenda in the new political atmosphere .
"Some of these things are not heavy lifts," Henricks said. "With very modest support from the White House, I think they would gain momentum on Capitol Hill. It would really discourage Bush's social conservative base if some of these things were not part of his agenda. He could do himself harm."
Supporters of abortion rights agree, and they fear that Democrats may not hold the line against further abortion restrictions because the party is eager to show it connects with voters on values. In addition, Democrats will be facing legislative battles on Social Security, tax reform and changes in tort laws.
Susanne Martinez, vice president for public policy at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she saw "signs of confusion" among Democrats in the wake of their electoral setbacks.
"It is a period when a lot of stuff is on the table. Social Security is looming over everything. Then there is tax reform, the continuing terrorist stuff. That's when a powerful minority can really push their agenda, because people are distracted," Martinez said, referring to opponents of abortion rights.
Planned Parenthood, Martinez said, is "very concerned with the results in the election providing a shift in the composition of the Senate. I definitely think there is a combination of anti-choice groups feeling emboldened and supporters of choice feeling cowed."