After several years of watching their top legislative priorities wither on the vine, social conservatives have scored major victories in the 108th Congress, suggesting a resurgence of a political movement that flourished a decade ago.
Self-described pro-family groups have capitalized on the resurrection of controversial topics such as abortion and a proposed federal ban on same-sex marriage, sometimes winning victories even in defeat, as social conservatives seek to build upon incremental successes to achieve their ultimate goals rather than shooting for the moon.
“We have gotten a little bit smarter, and we just feel that the country is starting to coalesce around our issues,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition of America.
In most cases, social conservatives themselves did not drive the issues, but reacted — often effectively — to events sweeping the nation, such as judicial rulings supporting gay marriage and the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner.
A ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court helped elicit a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while the Peterson murder helped push a bill, signed into law in April, making it a separate offense to harm a fetus during the commission of federal crime.
Conservative groups cannot claim sole credit for forcing Congress to address these high-profile issues, but they have played a vital role in energizing their members to press for passage of legislation they favor.
In the months leading up to the Senate’s consideration of the federal ban of same-sex marriage, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other Christian leaders appeared in live satellite broadcasts to churches imploring congregants to pressure their elected lawmakers to support the measure.
Socially conservative organizations also have launched aggressive grassroots campaigns to urge their members to pressure lawmakers on same-sex marriage and abortion, using such techniques as direct mail, e-mails and telephone calls to their offices.
“One of the best things they can do is supply good, factual information,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “One of the hardest things to get in Washington, D.C., is good, factual information. I think certainly they have a key role to play.”
A GOP Senator said current events have helped shape the legislative agenda this Congress, but he acknowledged that Republicans are eager to appease their political base.
“I think certainly during any presidential election year the issues which the base thinks is important need to be highlighted and I think that is in part why you are seeing some of this,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).
While leaders of these socially conservative organizations publicly express their desire to see Congress tackle major agenda items such as approving an outright ban on abortion, they add that success can ultimately be achieved through a series of smaller steps.
“We have finally started to take it step-by-step on the abortion issue,” Backlin said.
This same approach is being followed by social conservatives who are seeking to impose a federal ban on same-sex marriages.
Advocates and Congressional sponsors of the measure acknowledged early on that they did not have the 67 votes needed in the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment. But they still pressed for, and achieved, a vote on the subject, which helped bring more attention to the topic. Some social conservative activists said they believe the Senate vote in July prompted the House to tentatively schedule a similar vote on the issue in late September.
Even though social conservatives failed to achieve the requisite votes in the Senate and are unlikely to achieve the two-thirds needed in the House to pass a constitutional amendment, they view each exercise as critical building blocks.
Michael Franc, vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, described the approach pro-family organizations are taking on social issues as “rifle shots” — narrowly defined legislative efforts that have decent odds of being approved by Congress.
This was the case in the Unborn Victims of Violence Act named after Peterson, whose husband Scott is now on trial for murder. Another victory for anti-abortion rights forces came last year when Bush signed into law a ban on partial-birth abortion — legislation that was vetoed twice by former President Bill Clinton.
Both of these measures are viewed by social conservatives as important steps toward eventually overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that allows women to have abortions.
Beyond the high-profile issues of abortion and implementing a federal ban on same sex marriage, social conservatives claim several other legislative successes, such as Bush’s insistence on placing conservative judges on the federal bench; an effort to expand faith-based charitable activities; tax cuts for families; and a school-voucher program for students in Washington, D.C.
The accomplishments of social conservatives in Congress have been overshadowed this week by the pro-family activists anger of not having more prime time speakers address the convention. But given the choice, a senior official with one social conservative organization said they would rather have the Congressional victories.
“We were disappointed that the prime time lineup was not able to reflect the pro-life, pro-family movement, but at the end of the day policy is more important than a few moments behind a podium,” said Genevieve Wood, vice president for communications for the Family Research Council.
Still, not all Republican Senators are pleased with the increased attention given to social issues in the 108th Congress. But they do not blame Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for promoting this type of legislation.
“Certainly, this year we spent more time than I would have liked debating the issues that are divisive, but those issues are important to a lot of the members of our caucus,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “So, I certainly don’t in anyway fault the Majority Leader for deciding to proceed with those issues.
“My view is that the Republican Party is a big-tent party with room for both social conservatives and social moderates and I think that should be the theme of the convention,” she added.
But Chris Barron, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, charged that social conservatives “exerted a disproportionate amount of influence in the party over the last year.
“They don’t care about this party,” said Barron, whose organization represents gay and lesbian Republicans. “They care more about pushing a narrow, divisive social agenda.”