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Roll Call

Republicans Can’t Keep Social Issues Off Agenda

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Speaker John Boehner tried to quickly appease his conservative ranks in January when he designated as H.R. 3 legislation, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, that would make federal funding of abortions illegal under the health care law.

So much for House Republicans not taking up social issues this year.

House GOP leaders may not have intended on pushing a social issues agenda — they basically ignored such thorny topics in their “Pledge to America” majority-making document last year. But that isn’t stopping rank-and-file Members from looking for opportunities to advance measures dealing with red-meat subjects such as English as the national language, abortion funding and the practice of allowing “anchor babies” citizenship.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to quickly appease his conservative ranks in January when he designated as H.R. 3 legislation that would make federal funding of abortions illegal under the health care law. At the unveiling of the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Boehner said it was “one of our highest legislative priorities.”

“Our Members feel very strongly about the sanctity of human life,” he added. “We listened to the American people. We made a commitment to the American people in our Pledge to America, and we are continuing to fulfill our commitment.”

However, Republicans were quick to note that Boehner doesn’t plan to upend the majority’s fiscally conservative agenda to make room for social matters. The abortion funding provision was one of the few social issues outlined in the Pledge to America. The document also reaffirmed GOP support for “traditional marriage” but did not explicitly mention same-sex marriage or other controversial gay rights issues.

Boehner is focused on cutting spending and government regulation and growing jobs, spokesman Michael Steel said.

“We put together our Pledge to America by listening to the American people, and we’re focused on their top priorities: cutting spending and helping to create jobs,” Steel said in a statement. “There are any number of other important issues that the Speaker and others in our Conference care deeply about ­— including ending taxpayer funding of abortion, making sure every child has the opportunity to get a quality education, keeping terrorists out of America — and some of those were included in the Pledge as well.”

Rep. Lee Terry, a supporter of the social issues agenda, described the abortion funding provision in the health care law as the “pinnacle” of social issues that will get done in the 112th Congress.

“This is all part of efficient use of tax dollars, limiting the budget, so you’ll see more emphasis on fiscal issues than on pure abortion or social issues,” the Nebraska Republican said.

But Rep. Trent Franks, an anti-
abortion-rights advocate, said it is important for Republicans to try to do more than just focus on social issues tied to the economy.

“Even though the tyranny of the moment is the economic challenges we face, and I am certainly committed to addressing them, in the final analysis, which is important for us to remember, economies are a means to an end,” the Arizona Republican said. “I never want to take my eyes off the big picture.”

Republicans largely kept an arm’s length from social issues while they were in the minority last Congress. With the exception of the fight over abortion funding language in the health care law, GOP lawmakers rarely delved into such dicey subjects. However, the last time the GOP controlled the House, social issues, such as parental notification for abortion and gay marriage, had a prominent spot on the priority list.

Just weeks into the 112th Congress, conservatives have already started to introduce legislation.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) introduced a bill in  that would cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortions.

Rep. Steve King said he thinks Republicans, back in the majority after four years, need to think bigger.

“I think perhaps we might have not set our sights high enough for this Congress because those plans were something that was put in place when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker and without this significant pro-life majority we have today,” the Iowa Republican said.

King said he would like to expand Pence’s legislation to ban federal funding to any organization — not just Planned Parenthood — that conducts abortions or provides counseling on abortion.

For his part, King has already introduced a measure that would end the practice of automatically granting American citizenship to babies born in the United States to illegal immigrants. He is also gathering signatures for a bill that he plans to reintroduce that would make English the country’s official language.

Democrats are already trying to come up with a strategy to counter what they consider rollbacks of their priorities. One senior Democratic aide said the GOP social agenda is a distraction, but one that could work in the minority party’s favor.

“The question Americans are asking of Speaker Boehner and Republicans is, where are the jobs? And the answer Americans are getting back is, GOP is not interested in your top priority,” the aide said.

But Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison said his party shouldn’t dismiss the GOP plans outright. The Minnesota lawmaker said the Caucus needs to unite against a Republican extremism, pointing to an upcoming hearing on a measure that he says singles out one religious group, Muslim radicalism, in the Homeland Security Committee.

Ellison said he thinks President Barack Obama made the first step toward “solidarity” in his State of the Union.

“I thought strategically it was important because as they promote wedges to divide Americans, he is filling in the wedge,” Ellison said.

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