After a brief respite, culture war issues appear to be making a comeback in the Senate.
This week pitted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) against Senate Democratic leaders, as Paul pushed for a vote on an amendment to a flood insurance bill that would have ruled that life begins at conception.
The measure passed 74-19 Friday without a vote on Paul’s proposal. It was part of a broader package that included a transportation bill and a student loan measure.
Democratic leaders argued that the amendment had nothing to do with the bill and did not belong in the debate. They also believed it’s bad politics.
Earlier this week in committee, Paul sought in to offer amendments to a District of Columbia budget autonomy bill that would have rolled back some of D.C.’s gun laws and another proposal to make permanent a ban on city funding for abortion. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) canceled the markup, in part, because some of the proposals were likely to pass.
Paul “is on the verge of thrusting an issue — that is bad politically — to the forefront when it’s the last thing in the world the Republicans want to talk about,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide about the personhood amendment, adding that the move could hurt GOP favorability with women.
Social issues have cropped up from time to time this year as Congressional leaders have sought to position their parties ahead of the November elections. This has typically resulted in standoffs, gumming up the legislative works as Republicans and Democrats seek to paint each other in an unfavorable light with voters.
In order to help ensure speedy passage of the flood insurance bill and fend off amendments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) packaged it with a deal on the transportation bill and a compromise measure to prevent interest rates on student loans from doubling.
Reid had also threatened to keep the Senate in session until the package — which was a conference report and could not be amended — was passed.
“People can hold things up, but they can’t hold things up forever,” Reid warned Thursday, with a nod to the fact the Senators were eager to get back to their states for the July Fourth recess.
“There is a lot of disappointment in many different areas,” Reid said, acknowledging that some Senators did not get a chance to get a vote on their amendments, including Paul and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
Pryor had been leading a bipartisan effort to offer an amendment that would strike a provision to require Americans who live in areas protected by levees and dams to buy flood insurance.
Earlier in the week, Senate Democratic aides said they hoped Paul would back down, particularly because of what happened the last time there was a showdown on a social issue.
In March, Senate Republicans offered an amendment to transportation legislation that would have allowed companies and insurance providers to opt out of a proposed rule on access to contraception.
The amendment — which was defeated despite heated rhetoric from Democrats that it should not get a vote — came in response to a rule proposed by the Obama administration that would require insurance companies to provide and pay for contraception services in accordance with the 2010 health care law.
Republicans sought to frame the issue as one of religious freedom, because some religious institutions would be forced to offer insurance coverage for something with which they disagree.
But momentum shifted in Democrats’ favor after a House committee held a hearing on the issue that Democrats said was dominated by men. Momentum shifted further when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” after she testified before a Democratic panel that was called in response to the GOP hearing.
Seeing an opportunity, Democrats then claimed Republicans were conducting a “war on women,” and said the amendment showed that Republicans were willing to trample on women’s right to contraception, which they said is standard health care.
Since then, Republican leaders have attempted to stay focused on the economy and the need to create jobs.
“Since the contraception debate, Republicans’ standing with women has dropped; it’s still dragging [presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt] Romney’s numbers down,” the Senate Democratic aide said.
A Senate GOP aide said “no one in the country is buying the Democrats’ [war on women] argument.” The aide said Democrats are seeking to distract from the state of the economy, which is what the election will be about.
Republicans also argue that Paul’s efforts are the result of general GOP frustration with the amendment process, which under the recently passed farm bill saw the Senate vote on more than 70 amendments, including non-germane amendments.
“We thought we started a trend with the farm bill last week that was going to be more of a pattern,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.) who is also the Senate Republican Conference chairman. “This is kind of back to the way things were done before, which is unfortunate.”
Reid tried to pressure Paul to reconsider pushing for the amendment and spoke about the issue three times this week.
But Democrats did not go all out to highlight the issue, as they did not want to destabilize negotiations on the transportation bill nor legislation to avert a doubling of interest rates on student loans.
The Senate Democratic aide noted that Paul has a history of offering high-profile, typically non-germane amendments, which the aide acknowledged is every Senator’s right.
“It shows he’s not interested in legislating,” the aide continued. “The way the rules are designed, you can’t legislate if every Senator does what he’s doing.”
The criticism doesn’t bother Paul, who believes in the issues he pursues, including the personhood amendment.
“This is so important to the Senator,” said a spokeswoman, who added that he introduced it as a standalone bill in January.
“It would only take about 30 minutes of Senate time” to debate and vote on, the spokeswoman said.