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Republicans turn to extremes to motivate voter base

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July 19, 2006

By JIM KUHNHENN 

With votes this week on gay marriage, stem cell research and the Pledge of Allegiance, the Republican-controlled Congress is systematically working through an agenda of conservative causes, eager to mobilize hard-core voters in the months before the midterm elections.

The votes are part of an "American Values Agenda" designed by House Republican leaders to distinguish GOP lawmakers on social issues that are heartfelt by a small but active segment of the Republican electorate. Those voters will be crucial this year when turnout is expected to be low and when Republicans are facing a headwind of public antipathy.

As expected, the House on Tuesday failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would let Congress ban gay marriages. The 236-187 vote in favor of the constitutional change fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

Several other items on the Republican list of priorities are also bound to fail. But party strategists believe that even doomed legislation is worth the recorded vote.

"You get a better snapshot of a member of Congress by looking at their voting record," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (news, bio, voting record), R-Kan., a member of the leadership’s vote-counting operation. "They serve a purpose even in failure."

Republicans in the Senate were unable to block legislation Tuesday that would expand federally funded research of human embryonic stem cell lines, a step vigorously opposed by social conservatives. The House passed the same bill last year. But the legislation faces a certain veto from President Bush and the majorities in the House and Senate are not large enough to override him.

In a nod to conservatives, congressional leaders permitted votes on bills that would encourage scientists to find alternatives to embryonic stem cells and to prohibit inducing pregnancies to obtain stem cells from an embryo. Both those measures passed the Senate on Tuesday. In the House, the latter measure passed, but the first bill failed.

On Wednesday, the House was scheduled to vote on legislation that would prevent federal courts from hearing lawsuits challenging the Pledge of Allegiance. The legislation is a response to a federal appeals court decision in 2002 that the pledge’s reference to "one nation under God" is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2004 on technical grounds. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., allowed a floor vote on the bill, even though it failed to win enough votes to get out of the House Judiciary Committee.

Republicans on Tuesday also recommended a $100 million plan that would allow poor children to attend private schools. Such a private school "voucher" plan has long been a central element of conservative education policy, but has faced steadfast opposition from liberals and teachers’ unions.

Democrats also have tried to ignite their liberal base of voters, calling attention to the war in Iraq and by pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week found that 51 percent of registered voters surveyed favor Democrats for Congress and 40 percent favor Republicans. But the poll also found that only 27 percent of the public approves of the work of Congress.

Strategists believe such low ratings will depress voter turnout more than usual for a midterm election, though some Democrats believe that the war in Iraq will drive war opponents to the polls.

As a result, loyal, motivated voters are crucial to both parties. By driving a new social agenda, Republicans are also seeking to appease conservative activists who complained last year that the party was not living up to conservative pledges made in the 2004 presidential election.

"The clock is always a great motivator and the clock is ticking before the next election," said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. But Perkins welcomed the timing, saying that in times of world instability the American public seeks solace by turning to issues of personal values.

Whether the agenda will stimulate conservative voters, Perkins said, "I don’t think Republican should count their chickens before their eggs hatch, but there is action in the hen house."

Not all Republicans are pleased with the social priorities. Several Northeast Republicans are facing strong Democratic challenges in moderate to Democratic-leaning districts where topics such as gay marriage find little resonance.

"This type of social agenda or social policy-making at the congressional level is of no interest to me," said Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., who is in a tough re-election fight. "They may be successful in certain districts, but they certainly aren’t successful in my district. My constituents are well-informed and well-educated and prepared to make a lot of these decisions themselves and they don’t want the government to be involved."

© 2006 The Associated Press