GOP Puts Away Knives in Culture Wars, for Now

Posted February 13, 2009 at 6:09pm

Once at the forefront of the Republican agenda, social issues have taken a back seat to economic concerns as the GOP struggles to find its way.

Republicans in the House and Senate insist they remain a solidly socially conservative party. But unlike years past when social issues ranked atop the then-majority party’s agenda, “values” issues are playing second fiddle to more immediate concerns.

For instance, last month President Barack Obama issued an executive order reversing the “Mexico City Policy,” which banned federal funding for international family planning groups that provide abortions.

Republicans were incensed.

House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) described Obama’s position as “a course that goes in a direction that is antithetical to the sacred beliefs of millions of Americans who treasure the right to life.”

In the Senate, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) denounced the executive order as well: “Taxpayers should never be forced to pay for the destruction of innocent human life, here at home or overseas.”

He joined with Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) and other Republicans in a losing effort to attach an amendment to the children’s health insurance bill that would have reversed the order.

DeMint and House conservatives were also outraged late last year when the Capitol Visitor Center opened. The GOP lawmakers charged that the CVC failed to show respect for the role faith has played in the nation’s history, and they argued there was an intentional effort to write faith out of history altogether.

“There’s a terrible movement to rewrite our history and obscure our faith,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, told the conservative National Review in December.

While in the past incidents such as these would have ignited a spate of protests from House and Senate Republicans, lawmakers and the public appeared relatively unmoved and continued to focus on economic concerns.

Congressional Republicans said the lack of focus on social matters is simply a result of being the minority party during one of the nation’s worst economic slumps.

The general lack of interest among Republicans in reigniting the culture wars is particularly visible in the Senate, where leadership has actively sought to keep the Conference’s message on the economy and away from divisive social issues.

“I can’t imagine how out of touch people would think we are if we weren’t focused on the economy,” one GOP leadership aide said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) also have become increasingly concerned with the narrow focus of the GOP brand. Both leaders have privately and publicly warned that an overemphasis on social issues in recent years played heavily into their party’s electoral failures.

“Republicans have a clear record on faith and family issues, but right now Americans are focused on jobs and economic growth. We’re talking about the things on the top of their list of concerns,” a senior Senate leadership aide explained.

In the House, Republicans said they are likely to play defense in the culture wars, looking to hold the line against efforts by the Obama administration to push a socially liberal agenda.

“In the minority, our primary objective is to defend the hard-fought years of pro-family values,” Pence said.

Rep. Joe Pitts (Pa.), the head of the Republican Values Action Team, said that without the presidential veto as a backstop and in the face of a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, Republicans have to be vigilant in defending policies favored by the religious right.

“We don’t know what they will attack first,” Pitts said, adding that he hopes Democrats use the legislative process rather than executive orders to advance their social agenda.

“Where there is legislative action, we can respond,” he said.

The inability to set the agenda has also required Pitts and his colleagues to do advanced research on what issues could come down the pike, such as the potential removal of anti-abortion-rights riders on appropriations bills and the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

Pitts said he did not anticipate any radical policy changes in the 111th Congress but rather predicted an incremental rollback of the anti-abortion-rights agenda.

At times, they also will have to appeal to the other side of the aisle for help.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) joined forces with Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), who opposes abortion rights, and drafted a letter aimed at saving the appropriations riders.

The letter, which has 140 signatures, will be sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).

“It’s very simple,” Jordan said. “We said keep the riders and if you don’t at least have a vote on the floor on them.”