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Meese Helps Social Conservatives to Stay Relevant

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Former Attorney General Edwin Meese is organizing regular meetings of conservative activists to ensure social issues remain high on the GOP agenda.

“The social and fiscal issues are locked in a tight political embrace,” said Phyllis Schlafly, who has been invited to the Meese meetings in the past. “You can’t talk about spending money without talking about the social issues. I mean, what are we spending the money on?”

Schlafly, who has been a leading voice for “traditional values” for decades, and other social conservatives point to legislative victories at the state level such as the laws defunding Planned Parenthood passed by legislatures in North Carolina and Wisconsin as evidence that the Christian right is alive and well.

While many tea partyers also advocate for social issues, there is a consensus that topics such as abortion and school prayer will dilute calls for fiscal restraint.

“When they are acting as part of the bigger movement, that’s not what it’s about,” said Max Pappas, executive director for public policy at FreedomWorks, the libertarian group chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), which has claimed the tea party banner. “There’s a lot of self-policing.”

Faced with this climate, the Meese group seems to be trying to assert establishment principles of unity and political efficacy on a movement that is decidedly disparate and irreverent. Sometimes, especially when it comes to judicial nominations, that has not been difficult.

“Because this is such a target-rich environment, there’s always something that conservatives can unite around,” an attendee told Roll Call.

Meese was traveling and unavailable for comment.

At times, the breakfast group operates as a cheerleader for the conservative House Republican Study Committee. Paul Teller, executive director of the RSC, is a regular participant in the weekly gatherings, sources told Roll Call.

When the RSC came out with the Cut, Cap and Balance proposal for addressing the deficit, Meese’s breakfast group developed a corresponding pledge. As of Friday, 39 House Members, 12 Senators and all of the major Republican presidential candidates except Jon Huntsman had signed the promise not to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling without spending cuts, a cap on total spending and a balanced budget amendment. The Club for Growth and FreedomWorks have declared the pledge a key vote for their lawmaker rating systems.

With the legislative version of the idea approved by the House, Meese’s group spent last week’s meeting trying to figure out how to get it through the Senate, a meeting attendee told Roll Call. The Senate rejected the measure Friday.

Meese’s group also formulates and gathers signatures for policy papers called “Memos for the Movement,” which Teller helps circulate on Capitol Hill. One paper slammed several of President Barack Obama’s recess appointees, including Donald Berwick to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as “even too radical to be confirmed by [a] Democrat-controlled Senate.” That letter was signed by Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, Perkins, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and other conservative activists.

The breakfast meeting participants often carry their ideas to two larger closed-door events later in the day, a midmorning meeting organized by antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist and the Weyrich Lunch, sponsored by several social-issue groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition. Together, the two meetings act as an off-the-record testing ground for conservative messaging and policy.

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