Sucking up to conservatives

They promised social conservatives that they’d promote morality and patriotism, and this week Republican leaders in Congress tried to show that they keep their word.

With Republicans looking to conservative voters to fend off a Democratic takeover in this fall’s elections, the House of Representatives worked its way through an “American Values Agenda,” which included votes to ban gay marriage and take away federal courts’ jurisdiction on Pledge of Allegiance lawsuits.

But the strategy doesn’t look so smart to many GOP incumbents facing close races.

To be sure, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, conservative activists and many Republican incumbents in safe seats say that voting on these ideological issues is essential to restoring credibility with their party’s base. That in turn, they say, should improve turnout at the polls.

“Folks want to at least see that we’re talking about issues we say we’re going to talk about,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.

Said Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council, “It’s essential to address them before they go back before voters again.”

Others worry, however, that in close swing districts, the values agenda could turn off independent and moderate Republican voters, especially when coupled with President Bush’s veto this week of expanded embryonic stem-cell research.

“I wasn’t consulted” about the strategy, said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., chuckling uncomfortably in an interview.

Shaw, facing a competitive general election, supports embryonic stem-cell research and tried to override Bush’s veto. That could appease elderly constituents who favor the research, so long as they know Shaw’s position.

But Shaw’s vote for the gay-marriage ban, which fell short, could put him in the doghouse with the large gay constituency in South Florida’s Broward County.

“But you have to vote your conscience,” he said.

In Connecticut, where three House Republicans face competitive races, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., vented about the values agenda. “While Rome burns, we’re eating grapes. Anytime you do bad policy, it is bad politics.”

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said the values agenda gives Democrats a platform for accusing the GOP of ignoring real problems. “I could think of more important things to do,” he said. “Why do we have deficits? Why is government so big and why is it getting bigger? And why are we on the verge of the war spreading in the Middle East? And why do we have a monetary policy that’s going to lead to runaway inflation?”

The House values votes are mostly symbolic. The Senate either has rejected them or has indicated that it won’t vote on most of them this year. Senate leaders have tried but failed to advance a gay-marriage ban and flag-protection amendment. They’re planning a vote on a bill limiting where teens can travel for abortions.

Still pending on the House values agenda: requiring abortion doctors to tell women that fetuses can feel pain and shielding government officials from monetary damages in lawsuits over religious expression.

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., rejects criticism that the values agenda is futile.

The votes “put each and every member in this House on record with their constituents,” he said. He also disagrees that Congress is ignoring other issues, noting the passage of tax cuts and a border security bill that would crack down on illegal immigration and is now at an impasse with the Senate.

But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that any American who happened to tune in this week would conclude of Congress, “What they are doing is totally irrelevant to my life.”

Democrats could take control of the House with a gain of 15 seats and of the Senate with a gain of six. Polls show that voters, frustrated with the war in Iraq and high gasoline prices, blame Republicans more.

Norm Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and coauthor of a new book detailing Congress’ shortcomings, said the GOP strategy for hanging onto power is “shaky” and “degrades Congress.”

“They’re fearful that what happens will be what happened in 1994” to the then-dominant Democrats, Ornstein said, “that the out-party turns out in very substantial numbers and the in-party stays home.”

However, he said, “if you look at where the genuinely marginal seats are for them (Republicans), the ones they can’t afford to lose, more are in areas that are going to be driven by moderate votes than by base votes.”

Perkins countered that most Americans support keeping the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and oppose gay marriage.

Republican lawmakers won’t be penalized for bringing them up, he predicted. “There’s such global instability that people will turn inward to these core values, to see what we’re anchored to.”