House GOP Orders From the Values Menu

By Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Middle East may be careening toward all-out war, Iraq may continue to boil and oil prices may be nearing record highs, but Congress has social policy -- and a hefty dose of political calculation -- on its mind this week.

The House, acting on what Republican leaders call their "American Values Agenda," will vote today on an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, then move on to legislation protecting the Pledge of Allegiance from pesky federal judges. As early as Wednesday night, House members are likely to vote to sustain President Bush's first veto -- on a bill expected to pass the Senate today to fund federal embryonic stem cell research.

No one is pretending that most of the House legislation is destined to become law or to change the shape of the Constitution. Earlier this year, the Senate fell 11 votes short of the 60 votes needed just to advance the marriage amendment to a yes-or-no decision. Two years ago, just before another election and on the same amendment, the House fell well shy of the two-thirds majority required to advance a constitutional amendment.

The "Pledge Protection Act" -- which would bar federal courts from hearing challenges to the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance -- has its own problems. Just before the House's July 4 break, the bill actually died in the House Judiciary Committee on a 15 to 15 vote when seven Republicans failed to cast their votes and one, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), voted no. He argued that the measure would weaken the federal judiciary and give a future liberal Congress license to keep conservative causes out of federal courts.

But House leaders are resurrecting it, and success may be beside the point. Republican leaders hope the social causes of their values agenda will rally a surly conservative base in November.

Passage last week of a ban on Internet gambling as well as the recent voice-vote approval of the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act were just the beginning.

Coming soon will be a bill to protect public officials against monetary damages in lawsuits brought against the courthouse display of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols; the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would require doctors performing late-term abortions to inform their patients that fetuses feel pain, a contention disputed by some doctors; a ban on human cloning; a measure affording gun dealers more protection from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and another, responding to gun confiscations by New Orleans police after Hurricane Katrina, to prohibit police from using federal funds to impound guns in the wake of a disaster.

"Congress is using its role as an institution to air out a values-driven set of issues and let people who care most about those issues know where their supporters are, where their opponents are and why their position did not win," said Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation and a former House Republican leadership aide.

It has worked before, especially in 2004, when state-level bans on same-sex marriage were widely seen as bringing out Republican votes in key states. But in a midterm congressional election, the GOP may be taking a dangerous risk, said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. The most endangered House Republicans are in Northeastern and Midwestern districts that are either hostile to conservative social issues or are far more interested in issues of job security, gasoline prices or health care.

"The reasons these Republicans are in danger is because they're in districts that [John] Kerry won or Kerry came very close in," Fabrizio said.

"You're voting on something that's never going to happen. These are extremely difficult votes for moderates in difficult races, and they're all divisive in some way," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a leader of House moderates. "I have a lot of questions about this agenda."

Besides, Fabrizio said, with the Middle East in crisis and gasoline prices heading back into record territory, "I wouldn't want to be portrayed as being Nero doing all this stuff."

A Post-Katrina Focus on Earmarks

After it votes on three stem-cell-related bills today, the Senate will turn to the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes funding for more than 100 navigation, flood-control and related projects such as river locks.

Such periodic water bills have traditionally been stuffed with earmarks -- funding authorizations for home-state or district pet projects -- and have passed with little notice or difficulty. But this year's version comes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which has sparked more criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers, the way it spends money, and the value of its dams, dikes and dredging.

Taxpayer watchdogs and environmental groups have stalled the bill with demands that Congress improve the Corps' planning and management of crucial flood-control and navigation projects.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) plan to pepper the bill with amendments to subject large projects to independent peer review, to establish an interagency process to help Congress rank water resources projects by priority and to require the corps to minimize damage to the environment and wildlife.

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