Business Groups Tire of GOP Focus On Social Issues

By Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

John M. Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who now heads the National Association of Manufacturers, vowed before the November elections to use his trade association's might to back President Bush's judicial nominees. But as the Senate showdown approaches, the business group is delivering a different message: Judges are not its fight.

NAM's decision to sit out the brawl may be indicative of a broader trend. From Wall Street to Main Street, the small-government, pro-business mainstay of the Republican Party appears to be growing disaffected with a party it sees as focused on social issues at its expense.

"I'm inclined to support the Republican Party, but the question becomes, how much other stuff do I have to put up with to maintain that identification?" asked Andrew A. Samwick, a Dartmouth College economics professor who until recently was chief economist of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

"I don't know a single business group involved in the judicial nominees," said R. Bruce Josten, an executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Nada, none, zip."

A group of senators announced last night that they had reached a compromise designed to avert a showdown over the judicial nominees.

Economic conservatives grew restless during the first Bush term, when federal budget surpluses turned to yawning deficits, federal spending soared and the Republican-controlled Congress passed a Medicare drug benefit that marked the largest new federal entitlement since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

Concern eased after the 2004 election. The president's stated priorities were to control spending, address Social Security's long-term financing problems and simplify the tax code. But since then, the drive to restructure Social Security has stalled. Efforts to rein in federal spending have been upended by a highway bill that exceeds Bush's promised price tag and a budget resolution passed Congress that rebuffed the toughest entitlement cuts demanded by the White House.

Instead, Washington's focus has shifted from fiscal issues to more narrow concerns backed vociferously by social conservatives: the Terri Schiavo case, the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations and, most of all, the fate of the Senate's ability to filibuster judicial nominees.

"The potential for high-minded policy reforms to fix entitlements and spur growth and prosperity has degenerated into a hopeless morass," Republican economist Lawrence Kudlow wrote yesterday on the National Review's Web site.

Early in the second Bush term, business groups appeared ready to join social conservatives in the battle over Bush's judges. "We have every right to participate in the nomination process," NAM President Engler told Washington Post writers and editors in January. "Our interest is even keener than that of the White House on this issue."

But since then, it has become clear the judicial showdown could doom initiatives on taxes, legal liability protections, Social Security and other priorities. Last week, NAM spokesman Darren McKinney said not only would the group stay out of the fight, but "we hope that leveler heads prevail" before the confrontation virtually shuts down the Senate.

Mark A. Bloomfield, whose business-backed American Council for Capital Formation pushes for lower taxes on savings, investment and inheritances, said the business community is no longer the GOP's base.

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