White House Plans to Push Conservative Social Policy Agenda

W By Jim VandeHei

wASHINGTON – With Democrats no longer blocking their way in the Senate, President Bush and Republican congressional leaders plan a more vigorous push on their social policy agenda by trying to limit abortions, provide greater support to religious groups and increase funding for sexual abstinence and fatherhood programs, according to White House officials and key lawmakers.

When the Democrats’ 18-month rule of the Senate ends in January, Bush – backed by a new Senate majority, a larger House majority and what many GOP officials perceive as a new mandate from voters – will be in a stronger position to make broad social changes than he was during his first two years in office. Republicans plan to use this power to help more religious groups administer government social programs; appoint more conservative judges and outlaw late-term abortions; and increase funding for pro-family initiatives and sexual abstinence teachings as part of a new welfare law.

Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), the Senate GOP’s third-ranking leader, said Bush and the Republican-led Congress will take the country in a “more conservative direction” in the next two years. “There are a lot of conservative groups who would like to see things they care about considered,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader-elect Trent Lott, R-Miss., said most of the country is hungry for policies that discourage abortions and encourage churches and other groups to help families.

“The only places where these ideas are considered bad are on the two coasts,” Lott said in an interview last week. “Where the meat is in the sandwich, the rest of America, these are pretty mainstream ideas.”

Lott said Republicans will focus most of their attention on terrorism and economic issues, but not shy away from fights over social policies that most Democrats oppose.

Bush, a born-again Christian, supports the party’s social agenda, though some advisers worry that high-profile fights over abortion or other divisive issues might turn off independent voters in 2004. The president is eager to advance the cause where he can, aides said, although he has shown a willingness to soft-pedal some proposals when political opposition grows.

To be sure, Republicans risk a voter backlash if they are seen as overreaching on domestic policy. Exit polls from the Nov. 5 elections suggest the GOP picked up seats as a result of Bush’s popularity and his handling of the war on terrorism, not the party’s social agenda.

In a news conference Wednesday, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., predicted Republicans will try to “placate” conservatives, which “gives us an opportunity to showcase the difference” between the two parties heading into the 2004 elections.

Republicans are under pressure from many leading social conservatives to move aggressively in the months ahead. Kenneth Connor, president of the Family Research Council, is circulating an analysis of the 2002 elections that contends religious conservatives tipped the balance of power in key Senate races in Minnesota and Missouri and helped return Republicans to the majority.

In the clearest sign yet that compromise isn’t on their minds, the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council and other socially conservative groups helped sink a bankruptcy bill shortly after the elections because it contained a provision they felt would discourage abortion critics from protesting.

Abortion rights will be a major battleground next year, too. Lott has promised a vote next Congress to outlaw a procedure that critics call “partial birth” abortion. The House can easily pass the ban on late-term abortions, and it appears Republicans should have the 60 Senate votes they need to follow suit and send it to the president.

Douglas Johnson, top lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, said an early head count shows at least 62 incoming senators will support the ban, which if enacted is destined for a Supreme Court challenge. Bush’s plan to appoint many more conservative judges to the federal bench could pay dividends when abortion issues such as this reach the courts.

Republicans want to amend federal law to allow a person who violently harms or kills a pregnant woman to be charged for a separate offense of killing or harming the unborn child. This builds on the administration’s efforts this year to classify a fetus as a human being worthy of health care coverage and embryos as “human research projects.”

Many anti-abortion activists believe there are two key preliminary steps to overturning Roe vs. Wade: Solidly establish in law, government policy and the minds of voters that a fetus is a human being and, therefore, warrants equal protection; and get more conservative judges appointed, particularly to the Supreme Court.

Republicans also plan to press for legislation to make it a federal crime to transport minors from states with parental notification laws across a state line to obtain an abortion.

Wading deeper into the church-and-state debate, Bush wants to further his program to help religious groups win government contracts to administer social programs such as soup kitchens and rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and alcoholics.

He wants to expand the number of contracts that religious groups can compete for and clarify the “do’s and don’ts when they take federal money,” said H. James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “We’re hopeful the new (congressional) leadership might bode well for faith-based” initiatives.

Even with Democrats controlling the Senate, the administration made progress in expanding the role of religious groups. It spent nearly $30 million to provide technical advice to such groups interested in winning government contracts. It also worked with agency heads to encourage them to consider religious groups when doling out federal money. The government does not keep reliable figures on how much money flows to religious groups, so it’s impossible to gauge precisely how much progress Bush made.

To expand the government’s interaction with religious groups, Bush needs to clarify what these groups can do without violating the Constitution’s ban on government-established religion. Towey is working with Congress to enact a law that spells out how religious groups can play a larger public role. Even if congressional action is stymied, the president would likely issue new regulations to help religious groups work with the government, Towey said.

The incoming Republican-controlled Senate wants to increase tax breaks for people who give money to religious charities, and the House wants to open more government programs to religious groups.