Budget Deal Suggests Social Issues Could Take Backseat in 2012

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Congressional leaders and the White House struck what was presented as a historic budget deal late last week, and by most accounts the deal, perhaps tellingly, put finances over philosophy.

Republicans, looking for the most cuts possible, ended up relenting on a push to restrict abortion funding. In return, they were able to seal a deal and tout billions in spending cuts Democrats had resisted.

And while Republicans have spent the last couple months blending social battles into the campaign against government spending, the makeup of the budget deal suggests dollars and cents will drive the debate going into the 2012 election.

"It is about the economy," said Jeremy Mayer, public policy professor at George Mason University. "I just don't think God, guns, gays and fetuses is really going to matter that much."

In final budget deal, expected to be approved by Congress on Thursday, a provision banning Planned Parenthood funding was set aside, allowing the Senate to pursue a stand-alone vote outside the budget process. A ban on taxpayer funding for abortion in the District of Columbia stayed in, but some social conservatives nevertheless perceived the compromise as a slap in the face.

"I think a lot of people are going to be very disappointed that we couldn't get a better deal than this," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., told Fox News, adding, "Millions of dollars will be spent, given to Planned Parenthood, the largest taxpayer provider of abortion in the country."

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tweeted that the nation can't afford "subsidizing abortion."

Both women are talked about as possible 2012 presidential candidates. But their message on abortion might end up taking a backseat to the overall GOP message on fiscal conservatism. Bachmann and Palin, while complaining about the Planned Parenthood concession, nevertheless focused their concerns on the size of the cuts, claiming they weren't big enough.

Major social conservatives, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also made clear that spending and debt remained their top priority, despite the flashpoint feud over abortion.

"Personally, I want Planned Parenthood off the federal dole and I challenge anyone to find a more pro-life person than me, but fight that battle in the spotlight -- not attached to a bill that wasn't really about Planned Parenthood," Huckabee said on his Fox News program Saturday.

Huckabee, also considered a potential presidential candidate, commended House Speaker John Boehner for winning $38.5 billion in spending cuts in the fiscal 2011 budget and urged voters to elect Republicans if they want to see the party build on that momentum.

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said social conservatives are not at odds with those who are campaigning for less spending. He suggested that cause would fold into the broader push for fiscal restraint.

"The number one threat is the size of government and the burden the government is placing on the economy. I don't in any way think that social conservatives disagree with that set of values," he told Fox News. "They see it as part of the same fight."

Others suggest that the battles that define social conservatism simply cannot be won with Democrats in power. Former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove said Republicans need to first gain control of the Senate and White House to advance their cause.

And to do that, they might have to retain focus on the debt -- the issue that propelled the Tea Party into an electoral force for conservatives in 2008.

Mayer said social issues just won't play much of a factor in 2012 in part because most Republicans, save for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are unflinchingly pro-life. He suggested former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative and possible presidential candidate, might be the only one hitting that issue.

Though Romney, who announced his exploratory committee Monday, has other hurdles he'll have to surmount, Mayer said the focus on fiscal issues bodes well for business-minded candidates like him.

So-called social policy "riders" attached to fiscal bills "are interesting and they were a good negotiating strategy, but the riders are not going to play a role in the primary election," Mayer said.

Two other possible candidates, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, praised House Republicans for the budget deal during speeches in South Carolina over the weekend.

"This creates an opportunity," Gingrich said of the pending spending cuts. "This is a building block, and the next big step is the debt ceiling."

FoxNews.com's Judson Berger and Fox News' Doug McKelway contributed to this report.