Hill agenda thin on social issues as Republicans remain patient

In Richmond last week, the General Assembly wrestled with a bill that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion, and another that would declare that life begins at conception. In Annapolis, the state Legislature narrowly approved a measure legalizing same-sex marriage.

In between those two state capitals sits the nation’s capital, where social issues also have taken center stage recently. But it’s not certain whether any substantive pieces of social-issue legislation will advance as far on Capitol Hill. Nor is it clear whether all Republican members of Congress are as eager to focus on such topics as some of their state counterparts have been.

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In a Feb. 1 memo to his Republican colleagues on the “First Quarter Legislative Agenda,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) made no mention of upcoming bills on social issues, focusing instead on tax reform, energy policy and debt reduction. In brief remarks a week earlier at the March for Life, Cantor praised those in attendance but did not discuss any one thing the House planned to do to advance the antiabortion cause.

Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, advised against reading too much into Cantor’s memo, suggesting that such documents are “probably a pretty poor predictor of when pro-life issues will come up.”

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the co-chairman of the Pro-Choice Caucus, said she plans to keep her guard up.

“I think we’re going to have hearings and debates and bills,” she said, adding that Republicans have held several votes on abortion-related measures in this Congress. “There’s no reason to believe the majority is going to stop trying.”

On and off the Hill, Republicans are in the midst of an internal debate over how hard to press on social issues. Such fights can serve to animate the bases of both parties, but Democrats and abortion-rights advocates believe the current one has played in their favor.

“We predicted in 2011 that in 2012 there was going to be this overreaching,” said Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Obviously, we’ve seen it at the congressional level but we’ve also seen it in the states.”

Although no votes are scheduled in the House, there has been a robust national discussion about reproductive issues, sparked by an Obama administration proposal to require religious institutions to offer their employees contraception coverage, which the White House revised after an outcry from religious groups.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the contraception mandate. That will come two weeks after a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the topic fueled controversy because most of the witnesses invited to testify by the majority were men.

On Thursday, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hold a session on the Department of Health and Human Services budget, featuring HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, that is likely to focus on the contraception issue.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would allow religious groups not to provide coverage they morally oppose is expected to come to a vote in that chamber this week as an amendment to a transportation measure. Yet the House version of the “conscience” bill, which has more than 200 co-sponsors, has not been slated for a vote.

In a rare floor speech on Feb. 8, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decried the administration rule, but said “the House will approach this matter fairly and deliberately, through regular order and the appropriate legislative channels.”

Supporters say they’re in no rush, particularly because Obama is likely to veto the contraception bill if it reaches his desk.

“I want it to move as quickly as it takes to get it done, but I don’t want to have it up there just for a show vote and have it go down,” said Rep. John Fleming (La.), co-chairman of the House GOP’s Values Action Team.

Beyond the contraception issue, antiabortion advocates are focused on a recent bill introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) that would ban all abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks except to protect the mother’s life. The measure, which has drawn staunch opposition from city leaders, has 130 co-sponsors but has yet to receive a committee hearing.

There are also multiple versions of “personhood” legislation, declaring that life begins at conception, although none has shown signs of advancement in either chamber.

Nor is there any evidence of fresh congressional movement on the subject of same-sex marriage. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act remains on the books, although the Obama administration declared last year that it considers the measure unconstitutional and will no longer defend it in court. At Boehner’s urging, the House has stepped forward to mount a legal defense of the legislation.

Obama has said he backs a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to repeal DOMA, though it has yet to receive a vote in the Senate.

As is often the case, the real action on many social issues is likely to come later this year during the appropriations process, when Republicans are expected to try to extend bans on money for international family-planning groups and on taxpayer-funded abortions in D.C. So antiabortion groups seem content to bide their time.

“We don’t have any complaints about the current House leadership,” Johnson said. “These issues do have a certain ebb and flow.”

 
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