On eve of new Congress, GOP struggles with rift over social issues

While the tea party movement has focused on fiscal concerns, social issues remain key for other GOP lawmakers, who are unhappy that such issues seem to have less importance these days.

The exterior of the US Capitol is seen in this 2010 file photo. A new Congress begins its work, including social issues, this week.

As Republicans take back control of the House this week, social conservatives who helped drive their victory are feuding over the need to reaffirm social values, especially opposition to gay rights.

In the culture wars of the 1990s, elections were decided by values issues – gun rights, school choice, marriage, abortion. But in November’s midterm elections, such issues were dwarfed by economic concerns, such as debt, spending, and the size of government. Many of the tea party candidates focused on these fiscal concerns, playing down social issues.

This year also saw a low profile for social conservative groups as Congress debated the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Senate’s decision to allow openly gay service members in the armed forces – a vote that eight Republicans backed – sent a signal that the influence of social conservative groups on Capitol Hill is slipping.

All this has left many social conservatives unhappy. And some of them are opting to make a statement by boycotting the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February. Their beef: GOProud, a national organization of gay conservatives, will be allowed to participate.

This is a rift that many Republican leaders would rather avoid, especially as they prepare to absorb the bumper crop of tea party freshmen in the new Congress. House Republican leaders expect unity in party ranks on the need to rein in the scope of government, the cut spending, and develop a credible, long-term plan to control deficits.

“Social issues are quite damaging and create internal dissension within the Republican Party,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Many Republicans realize that in the last 20 years, those cultural issues are not winning issues for Republicans, especially gay rights.”

He adds, “Their best hope is not to talk about it and focus on the economic and national-security issues where Republicans are more united and more in touch with where public opinion is.”

Groups joining in the boycott of CPAC include: Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the American Principles Project, Capital Research Center, American Values, the Center for Military Readiness, Liberty Counsel, and the National Organization for Marriage.

“If the U.S. ‘conservative movement’ is to survive, prosper and be a force for reclaiming everything that made America unique and great in the days ahead, it is going to need a purge,” said blogger Joseph Farah in a post last week on WorldNetDaily, who has led calls for a boycott.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, counters: “Our country is at an important crossroads.” He adds, “We should all get together on all the issues we agree on.”

The timing of the boycott came in the last hours of fundraising appeals for 2010, as conservative groups pitched donors for support.

In a bid for unity on tough debt and spending issues, some Republicans are urging their party to sideline divisive social issues. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) was the first potential 2012 presidential candidate to call for a “truce” on such issues.

“When you’re trying to make big change in a state or a nation, the way to do that is to have an unnaturally large consensus,” he told The Indianapolis Star last month. “And so we’re going to need people who disagree sincerely about other questions to agree about these changes.”

Yet even mention of a truce riled the social conservative groups calling for a boycott of CPAC. “Mitch Daniels’s statement has disabled him from running an effective campaign for president,” says Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law and founder of Liberty Counsel.

“To represent conservative values, you need to understand or respect all three legs of the Reagan revolution, which was social, economic, and national defense,” he adds. “Even if you do not focus on all three, you need to respect all three, because a stool can only stand on three legs.”

One other reason that social conservative issues did not dominate the 2010 campaign: On some of them – notably gun rights – conservatives have largely won already.

“This is the most pro-life Congress and pro-gun Congress in history, and the traditional-values conservative groups are as strong as ever,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a leading fiscal conservative group.

“If somebody is whining, they must not be connected to the real conservative groups and institutions that are having tremendous success: the National Right to Life Committee, the National Rifle Association, the Home School Legal Defense Association. They’re putting lead on the target, and they’re not complaining.”

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