Why GOP Skirts `Hot-Button' Issues for Now

WHEN Congress begins grappling with the ``Contract With America'' at its maiden session on Jan. 4, some of the nation's most contentious issues will be missing from the GOP's 100-day action plan.

Not that these issues are forgotten. But unresolved differences among Republicans and their preoccupation with making good on the Contract's already far-reaching promises could keep many other issues off the House and Senate floors for some time.

These hovering issues include abortion, gun control, prayer in public schools, immigration, gay rights, and other ``hot-button'' social topics.

Many conservative Republicans are determined to act eventually on these matters, however, now that the GOP is free from 40 years of Democratic shackles. These Republicans also feel indebted to right-wing constituents and organizations that helped power them to their November victories.

``In a political environment where moral, religious, and family issues have moved to the center, this Congress cannot ignore such issues,'' says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick of Luntz Associates, a conservative polling firm that worked on the Contract for House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

``America looks first at its pocketbook,'' she adds. ``But there are other heartstring issues out there. Don't be surprised if you have a Contract With America Part II.''

But many Republicans want to avoid contentious issues for now. On some, such as weakening gun-control laws, the lack of a consensus threatens to ignite internal party feuds that might undermine priority work on the Contract and the 1995-96 federal budget. Infighting might also mar the GOP's quest for the White House in 1996.

On other matters, such as banning abortion and limiting gay rights, the US public is divided.

``Those are bruising battles that we don't really want to get into,'' says a Republican congressional staffer.

Many Republicans admit that the Contract's 10 planks of tax and spending cuts, congressional, fiscal and welfare reforms, and reductions in the size of the federal government were selected precisely because they posed the least threat to GOP unity.

``We were seeking the lowest common denominators in seeking the things on which all Republicans agree,'' says Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California.

The potential for disagreements on non-Contract issues is most apparent between moderates in the GOP's creaky 53-member Senate majority and the 231-member House majority, whose unity is overseen by Mr. Gingrich and safeguarded by his 73 staunchly conservative freshmen Republicans.

These freshmen are expected to agitate the loudest for action on the ``pro-family'' agendas of the Christian Coalition and other organizations. Among other measures, they seek constitutional amendments banning abortion and authorizing school prayer.

Victory by avoiding defeats

Gingrich has promised a House vote by July 4 on a school- prayer amendment. But some analysts now question that commitment given Gingrich's determination to see enactment of all Contract legislation and a new federal budget by the summer recess beginning Aug. 4. A fiery, protracted school-prayer debate could derail that schedule.

More important, these analysts say, with Gingrich anxious to chalk up successes, he may not want to push school-prayer legislation that could be overturned by the Supreme Court as a violation of its rulings on church and state.

Gingrich ``knows enough about where the court stands. All he has to do is not put his weight behind it [prayer amendment], and it will die a quick death,'' says Ron Shaiko, a professor of government at American University in Washington.

Inquiries over several days to Gingrich's office on whether he remains intent on a school-prayer vote by July 4 went unanswered.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah and the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, plans hearings on a school-prayer amendment. But GOP staffers say there is little chance that it will make it to the Senate floor this year.

On abortion, polls show that it was not a ``primary vote-influencing factor,'' Miss Fitzpatrick says. Accordingly, even some hardcore Republican abortion opponents say they will not push a constitutional amendment for a ban despite enormous pressure from anti-abortion groups.

``I don't see that happening in this term,'' says Congressman Dornan, an outspoken opponent of abortion. ``I think there has to be another big election.''

He says he will push to roll back federal abortion regulations enacted by what he calls ``in your face'' executive orders signed by President Clinton in January 1994.

On other issues, some Republicans want a federal law similar to California's Proposition 187, which would deny public benefits to illegal immigrants. Some would also like to deny welfare to legal immigrants. But opponents of the ideas include some leading GOP conservatives.

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