The Right Advances On Hill

Social conservatives, with an army of voters, meet new success in forwarding an agenda.

Leaders of the social-conservative movement - often called the religious right - had come to a conclusion: Their agenda was stalling in Congress, and House Republicans hadn't done enough to push it forward.

Then came the ultimatum: Produce, some of them said, or we'll tell our voters to stay home in November.

It was a threat House leaders were not about to ignore. With social conservatives making up one-third of GOP voters, their turnout next fall could be the key to continued GOP control.

Speaker Newt Gingrich & Co. quickly called a May meeting with social conservatives and agreed to push a three-point agenda: end the tax code's "marriage penalty," dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts, and override the president's veto of a ban on "partial-birth" abortion. Since then, all have moved forward.

It's a telling example of the religious right's muscle in the Republican Party. No longer willing to be a supplicant, it is able to demand and get attention. More than once, its priorities have become law.

"That the Republican leadership feels these things must come up for a vote is a sea change," says Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is often at odds with the social-conservative agenda. In past years, he says, such bills died in committee.

"It's nothing short of remarkable what's been accomplished over the past few years," says Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "Although not everything has been enacted, there's been a lot of movement in the right direction."

It's no secret that, for years, social conservatives have had a tough time getting Congress to enact much of their agenda. They are often successful in the House, less so in the Senate, and almost never at the White House.

"When somebody who opposes your agenda controls the executive branch, that's a formidable obstacle," says Martin Dannenfelser, media and government-relations director for the Family Research Council.

Observers disagree on how many social conservatives currently serve in Congress. A House Republican aide counts 140 to 180 in the House; 30 to 36 in the Senate. Mr. Boston, on the other hand, estimates their ranks at 80 to 85 representatives and as many as 25 senators.

"They're more of a threat than in the past, but so far they have not succeeded in passing most of their agenda into law," says Mike Lux of People for the American Way, a liberal citizens' group.

In the 105th Congress, social conservatives have scored some important victories. The latest came Wednesday, when the House approved a bill prohibiting transportation of a minor across state lines to have an abortion without parental consent.

Social conservatives were also backers of the $500-per-child tax credit and the "Homemaker's IRA" enacted as part of last year's balanced-budget deal. This year, a ban on certain late-term abortions passed both houses, as did a voucher program to provide federal money for District of Columbia schoolchildren to attend parochial schools. (President Clinton vetoed both.)

Social conservatives are working to leave their mark on foreign policy as well: A bill to reorganize the State Department and foreign-affairs agencies, which both houses have passed, is held up over international family-planning issues. Social-conservative senators are widely suspected to be holding up a Senate floor vote on the nomination of James Hormel, who is openly homosexual, as ambassador to Luxembourg. They are in the forefront of opposition to renewing normal trade status for China.

On other priorities, a vote to defund the NEA recently failed in a House committee, although GOP leaders promise to revisit the issue. A key social-conservative priority, a Religious Freedom Amendment that would change the Constitution to allow audible prayers in public schools, got a majority of House votes, but fell short of the two-thirds required.

"The biggest achievement of the social conservatives so far has been to move their agenda from the back burner to front and center," Boston says. "And they did that through sheer threats, intimidation, and bullying tactics."

The Christian Coalition's Mr. Tate counters that the strength of the movement is grass-roots organization and people phoning their representatives. "Those phone calls to members of Congress have an impact. No doubt."

The religious right, like most factions in Congress, succeeds best when it tacks its priorities onto spending bills, rather than sending stand-alone measures to the Oval Office. "You do see many of these battles occurring on the [appropriations] bills because they tend to be the closest thing to what you can call must-pass legislation," Mr. Dannenfelser says. Mr. Clinton will sometimes accept such proposals as part of an overall package that gives him something he wants, he observes.

SOME social conservatives say the amount of legislation they get through Congress is not the point. "If conservatives were willing to swallow half of Clinton's agenda to get half of their agenda, then maybe they could get half of their agenda passed, but a lot of conservatives aren't willing to do that," says Terry Allen, chief of staff to Rep. Steve Largent (R) of Oklahoma. Sometimes, he says, the victory is in highlighting the differences between Republicans and the president.

"Ultimately, we want to get the bills passed," Dannenfelser says. "But sometimes it is important to get it out there for the purposes of public education."

"Though you may come up short, we're expected to fight the good fight," Tate says. "In doing so, you change minds and you change hearts. And along the way you affect public policy."

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