Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Welcome or Not, Back to Culture War

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
From left: Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg, Patty Murray, Richard Blumenthal and Barbara Boxer conduct a news conference in the Capitol on GOP Sen. Roy Blunt’s amendment on contraception.

Casual observers of American politics could be excused if, surveying the landscape, they assume we're back in 1996.

There's a personally popular and yet deeply divisive Democratic president running for re-election who is triangulating against Congress. Republicans and Democrats are jousting over the latest iteration of the culture war. Moderate Democrats are running from their budget shadows.

Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is lurking about.

Unfortunately for fans of the mid-'90s wars over religion, morality and politics, the blast from the past currently gripping Washington, D.C., might not last long if GOP leaders, who'd rather focus on the economy and President Barack Obama, have anything to say about it.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said last week that while "it gets people energized," social issues will not be the primary theme of the year.

"I think, in the end, the issue that's
going to be paramount come November is going to be jobs and the economy. At some point the narrative is going to shift back to that," Thune said.

The problem, Republicans acknowledged, is their inability to keep the issue focused on religious freedoms, which some polling indicates plays well with independents and Catholic voters.

But with the issue being increasingly viewed as a question of women's health and access to contraception, those same polls show Republicans taking criticism, particularly with women.

If the issue is to work for the GOP, Republicans need to keep the focus on "the Obama administration's efforts to intervene into people's everyday lives," a GOP leadership aide said.

"That's what our focus needs to be as we continue to pursue this issue as a Conference" and not become drawn into a full-scale culture fight, the aide added.

Sparked by the Health and Human Services Department's January decision to require employers, including religiously affiliated schools and institutions, to provide contraception services through their health insurance plans, top Republicans initially embraced the new round of culture wars.

In rare floor speech earlier this month, Speaker John Boehner denounced the decision, arguing, "If the president does not reverse the Department's attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.

"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand and will not stand," the Ohio Republican added.

Other national Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and the field of presidential hopefuls, quickly picked up the issue.

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