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Every Wednesday morning, about a dozen prominent conservatives led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese huddle over a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast in a quest to prevent their movement from fragmenting.
The strategy sessions — held at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. — bring together some of the old guard’s familiar figures, including Meese, who ran the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan; Tony Perkins, the president of the council; and Alfred Regnery, former head of the conservative publishing house bearing his family’s name, according to sources familiar with the gatherings.
For the past two years they have served as ambassadors to the days when advocates for conservative social causes and fiscal causes were united at the hip — and the ballot box. The group is trying to reinforce the notion in conservative circles that issues such as faith, gay marriage and abortion are inherently tied to deficit reduction and limited government.
“One of my abiding passions is to facilitate the rejoining together of the various strands of the conservative movement into the single most potent and effective political force,” said Colin Hanna, president of the advocacy group Let Freedom Ring. Hanna attends the weekly meeting but declined to discuss details of its proceedings. “Over the last couple years social conservatives have realized that the entire movement is stronger when all are collaborated together,” he said.
The breakfast meetings, led by Meese, began in 2009 as an outgrowth of the Council for National Policy, a group founded 30 years ago by the Rev. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister, with the help of Paul Weyrich, an iconic conservative
political organizer, sources said.
That year, the council brought in $1.8 million in total revenue and spent $139,000 on the activities of the breakfast meeting, dubbed the Conservative Action Project, according to the most recent documents filed with the IRS.
But the culture wars of the early 1980s that gave rise to the council have cooled, and Republicans in Congress are more focused on the budget and appeasing the fiscal conservatism of tea party activists.
A recent Washington Post survey of 650 tea party groups from around the country found that nearly all identified economic concerns as their top priority while almost none pointed to social issues.
Still, the champions of conservative social issues dismiss the notion that they have fallen off the radar of the Republican Party and the conservative grass roots. They argue that the recession has distracted voters, but their issues are intertwined with cutting government spending.
“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.
But even some conservatives who share the participants’ cultural views look at the Meese sessions with skepticism.
“Frankly, you got a lot of old-line folks who recognize that train is leaving and they want to be on it,” a longtime socially conservative activist told Roll Call. “They always want to co-opt.”
Correction: July 25, 2011
This story has been updated to indicate that Alfred Regnery is the former head of Regnery Publishing.