GOP Tilt to Partyís Right
By Gebe Martinez
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's claim to the moral high ground in his recent attacks on President Clinton sends the clear signal that the GOP is ready to take the offensive in this election year.
Republicans are taking off their gloves against Clinton and focusing on conservative "family values" social issues that defined their takeover of Congress three years ago.
Filling up the legislative calendar in the coming days and weeks will be several proposals with a conservative twist: school vouchers, mandatory sanctions on countries that engage in religious persecution, and elimination of the so-called "marriage penalty" that taxes the income of married couples at a higher rate than if they remained unmarried.
Also expected to come up soon are a voluntary school prayer constitutional amendment, a ban on the so-called "partial birth abortion" procedure, a legislative package that will tie the GOPís anti-drug legislation with efforts to reduce teen smoking, and a proposed change in bankruptcy law that would let people give to their church even though they have other outstanding debts.
These items have been in the pipeline for months, but are being served up as "moral values" issues just as leaders of conservative pro-family and religious-based groups are demanding action in order to get core Republican voters to the polls in November.
The game plan poses little risk in what is expected to be a "status quo" election, Republican strategists said, because the name of the game in an off-year election is to get dedicated core supporters to the polls in November.
"Swing voters donít vote in an off-year election," Republican pollster Ed Goeas said, "so itís a matter of intensity in terms of motivating your base, but not agitating the base on the other side."
Conservative lawmakers said the partyís base can be motivated by sharpening the rhetoric and emphasizing issues that highlight differences between the two political parties.
"I think that we have to keep charging up the hill. I think thatís what the conservative leaders are asking for. They are willing to accept defeat, but they cannot accept a lack of effort on a variety of issues," said Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla.
Largent is helping House GOP leadership and movement conservatives develop the "values agenda" which will be discussed at a meeting in early May.
The summit was scheduled after Focus on the Family President James Dobson and Family Research Council President Gary Bauer engaged in a shouting match with the House leadership and threatened to pull their grassroots support in November because their Christian conservative issues had not been promoted enough in Congress.
Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind., who heads the Houseís Conservative Action Team, said he hears complaints from base supporters such as: "You guys are not doing anything to challenge President Clinton and his initiatives, so step up to the plate and try to move our agenda." McIntosh said constituents are saying, "Where the hell have you guys been?"
Where they have been in recent months is largely on the sidelines -- waiting cautiously while independent counsel Kenneth Starr decided to investigate whether Clinton had lied under oath about relationships with women, including White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Instead of tearing apart the Clinton budget that proposed an estimated $150 billion in new spending -- a shift to the "center left" to motivate Democratic voters -- Republicans "over the last three months have been there, sitting and waiting to see what the scandals are going to bring," Goeas said.
Republicans also were somewhat stymied by Clintonís continued high job approval ratings, hovering in the high 60s. But coming into clearer focus now are the public opinion poll numbers showing disapproval of Clinton "as a person" at 50 percent, with only 36 percent registering personal approval, the pollster added.
Rather than limiting their attacks to the Democratic policy or Clinton personally, Republicans are criticizing the policy through the president, by claiming that Clinton lacks moral substance and the policies he supports must somehow have the same flaws.
After holding his tongue in check for several weeks while Starr expanded his investigation of Clinton for alleged obstruction of justice and perjury -- with seemingly little impact on the presidentís job approval ratings in opinion polls -- Gingrich's new message is that no one is above the law.
"That means you canít claim executive privilege for frivolous reasons. It means you canít abuse the law. It means you canít abuse power. It means you canít suborn witnesses. It means you canít bribe people," Gingrich said during his speech Monday evening to GOPAC, a political action committee he once led.
Gingrich also tied the rise in drug use and teen smoking to the Clinton/Gore administration, which he said has "less moral authority" than any other in American history.
And on Wednesday, Republicans are poised to repudiate President Clintonís support of a needle exchange program designed to prevent the spread of AIDS. Although Clinton already has decided not to allow federal funds to be used for such a program, Republicans hope to score political points by passing a bill to outlaw any use of federal dollars.
By linking the anti-drug proposals with teen smoking prevention, Republicans want to undermine Clintonís support for tobacco legislation that is opposed by some conservatives who want to shield the industry against punitive measures.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Tex., said of Clinton, "Heís very adamant about teenagers smoking cigarettes, but at the time heís trying to take away cigarettes from teenagers, he wants to give them needles to stick in their arms."
Republican attacks against the president have been intensifying in recent weeks, beginning with DeLayís speech on the House floor last month, in which he called on the president to "tell the truth."
"The Independent Counsel must pursue it. Congress must expect it. The public must hear it. The president must tell it," DeLay said.
During the recent April recess, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Tex., also entered the fray while speaking to a high school class in his district. "If it were me that had documented personal conduct along the lines of the presidentís, I would be so filled with shame that I would resign," Armey said.
Then there was the widely-criticized remark last week by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who called the president a "scumbag."
Burtonís committee has been probing alleged campaign finance abuses during the 1996 Clinton/Gore re-election campaign.
In an increasingly typical exchange of remarks between Capitol Hill and the White House, Clinton spokesman Michael McCurry said of Burtonís comment: "The use of a two-syllable vulgarity by the chairman was rather ambitious."
Gingrich did not refer to Burtonís remarks during his speech Monday, but instead called on Democrats to break party-line votes against granting immunity to four witnesses, or risk becoming the party of "cover-up and corruption."
In his strongest words on the ongoing criminal investigations against the Clinton White House, Gingrich also accused the administration of a "systematic, deliberate, obstruction of justice cover up in an effort to avoid the truth," and alleged that the White Houseís "paid hacks" were unpatriotic and were undermining the U.S. Constitution.
Clinton replied on Tuesday that Gingrich "said a lot of things last night, that I donít think it would serve any useful purpose for me to respond to. There is enough negative political talk in Washington every single day without the President adding to it."
Democrats, meanwhile, have countered that it is "scary" that conservative extremists have moved the Republican agenda to the hard right.
Before the GOP-controlled Senate recently voted to send about $10 billion -- one-third of all federal funds for primary and secondary education -- back to the states and local schools in the form of block grants, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D. said the public was seeing "the real Republican ideology come out now on this bill." Daschle described Republicans as wanting to dismantle the Department of Education because they "hate" it.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., also is complaining about the Republican-controlled House agreeing to bring to the floor the "right-wing" agenda.
"In the meantime, health care, education, budget, pension legislation, Medicare, Social Security, does not seem to go anywhere," Gephardt maintained. "We are concerned we have a Congress which is going no here but to the extreme."
Whether the Democratic complaints register with voters remains to be seen as they try to win back enough House seats in November to overcome the GOPís 11-vote majority.
That narrow margin should cause some worry within the Republican caucus, cautioned Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, since an insurrection by as few as 10 moderate GOP members could cause the party embarrassing legislative defeats on the House floor.
Just last week, for example, Gingrich was forced to give in to moderates in his party who were demanding a full debate on campaign finance reform legislation -- a topic that causes heartburn for Christian conservatives because most reform proposals would add strict controls to campaign spending by "issue advocacy" groups.
"The Republicans are in a tough position to bring up votes that are divisive because they have a small majority in the House. They donít want to lose on the floor, but at the same time, they need to energize their base," Binder said.
Indeed, the proposed school prayer constitutional amendment is not expected to win the required two-thirds vote on the House floor, but it will be taken up to give conservative groups a key vote on which to rank members before the general election, according to congressional staffers and members of the organizations.
McIintosh, the Indiana legislator, said such votes will help answer the criticism from their supporters: "You guys donít seem to be any different than the Democrats."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company