Published April 16, 2006
Between now and the November elections, Republicans are penciling in plans to take action on social issues important to religious conservatives, the foundation of the GOP base, as they defend their congressional majority.
In a year where an unpopular war in Iraq has helped drive President Bush's approval ratings below 40 percent, core conservatives whose turnout in November is vital to the party want assurances that they are not being taken for granted.
"It seems like for only six months, every two years — right around election time — that we're even noticed," said Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council.
"Some of these better pass," he added. "You notice when it's just lip service being paid."
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer agreed that the effort matters.
"If they get to these things this summer, which we expect that they will, that will go a long way toward energizing the values voters at the base of the Republican Party," said Bauer, head of Americans United to Preserve Marriage.
GOP leaders long have known that the war and merely riding the coattails of a second-term president could disillusion their base.
If there was any doubt, conservatives issued a concise warning last month. Four groups representing evangelical Christians said an internal survey found that 63 percent of "values voters" — identified as evangelical Christians whose priorities include outlawing abortion and banning same-sex marriage — "feel Congress has not kept its promises to act on a pro-family agenda."
The Family Research Council, which headlined the survey, also announced it would hold a "Values Voter Summit" in September to "raise the bar of achievement for this Congress." At the top of the agenda could be a call for new leadership in Congress if those in power have not acted on social conservatives' issues.
Some leaders read the warning signs early.
The House has approved an amendment to the Constitution to outlaw flag burning and passed a bill to crack down on the practice of minors' crossing state lines for abortions to evade legal limits in their own states
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and a possible presidential candidate in 2008, announced early this year that the Senate would consider those and the anti-gay marriage amendment that has failed in both chambers despite Bush's endorsement.
"When America's values are under attack, we need to act," Frist told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.
Those were sweet words to Bauer's ears.
"The marriage amendment is in a class by itself because of what's at stake," Bauer said.
House Republican officials close to the scheduling process said the marriage amendment is headed for a House vote in July.
Sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., also a possible presidential candidate, the measure would have the Constitution define marriage as the union between a man and a woman — in effect rescinding a 2004 Massachusetts law that made gay marriage legal.
Sending the proposed amendment to the states for ratification may not win the two-thirds majority required in the House and Senate. But committing to a vote in June is a gesture of good faith that would resonate with social conservatives, Bauer said.
The amendment banning flag desecration, a perennial vote and favorite of some conservatives, would need the same majority for ratification. Frist has promised to bring it up in June. The amendment was ratified by the House last year but was not brought to a vote in the Senate after 35 senators declared their opposition.
The bill to curb abortions among minors has long been on Frist's list of legislative priorities. Legislation imposing penalties on anyone who helps a minor cross state lines to obtain an abortion won easy passage in House last year.
Frist has promised to bring a similar bill to the Senate floor before the year is out.
Not on the Senate's schedule, however, is a bill allowing taxpayers to underwrite human embryonic stem cell research, a science still in its infancy that could lead to cures for many diseases.
Social conservatives, including Bush, say that the process by which the cells are derived is morally akin to abortion because the fertilized egg is destroyed.
Frist, a surgeon who enraged many in the GOP base last year when he supported a House-passed bill to fund the process, had planned a Senate vote on the matter by Easter. Congress adjourned for the holiday this month without such a debate anywhere on the Senate's calendar.