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As GOP Ascends, Liberal Activists Ponder

Liberal groups who had finally been able to nudge some of their issues to the forefront on Capitol Hill in recent years are being forced to readjust their strategies as they brace for an onslaught of conservative activism in the new Congress.

With the GOP in charge of the House and with greater numbers in the Senate, these advocacy groups are likely to find themselves again on the defensive on issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration and the environment.

As a result, the lobbyists for such advocacy organizations predict they will be bulking up their communications and grass-roots operations, as well as carefully scrutinizing legislation coming out of the House. They also will have to prod the Senate and the White House not to compromise with House Republicans on hot-button social issues.

“Everybody needs to go back to the drawing board to ensure that the strategy they have makes sense given the new configuration,” said Robert Raben, a Democratic lobbyist whose firm, the Raben Group, represents groups focused on gun control, immigration and gay rights.

Raben said liberal activists who have largely relied on Democrats to carry out their agenda need to reach out to Republican moderates to build new coalitions for their issues. He also said they will have to “bump up” their message game to counter the conservative rhetoric from Capitol Hill.

Even with a Democratic president and strong majorities in Congress in 2009 and 2010, liberal groups didn’t succeed in pushing through all of their priorities on Capitol Hill, such as mandating a public option in the health care law or passing the immigration measure known as the DREAM Act. But they have still often had access to influential committee chairmen and were able to thwart efforts to further hurt their causes.

Now these activists will have precious little time to regroup, as House Republicans are expected to almost immediately take up appropriations measures likely to be sprinkled with language that could very well rescind or restrict more liberal policies enacted in the past two years.

“They will have to be very, very vigilant,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and partner with Elmendorf Ryan. Elmendorf said the bigger problem for the groups is not stand-alone bills but omnibus budget measures and continuing budget resolutions.

A defensive posture is not new to the liberal community, which spent much of the past decade seeing its priorities get sidetracked by a Republican president and GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

“There was no firewall at all,” said Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In the upcoming session, Miller said NARAL will be lobbying the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House to prevent House Republicans from inserting anti-abortion provisions into major bills.

Miller acknowledged that there is a different landscape in the House than in the past two years. NARAL has estimated that the recent midterm elections resulted in a net gain of 42 anti-abortion lawmakers.

To galvanize its membership, NARAL has launched a public relations campaign focusing on the record of Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), who the group says has voted against abortion rights on 142 occasions.

Even before the Republicans were slated to take control, the abortion rights movement suffered a defeat. Just before the lame-duck Congress adjourned in December, the Democratic leadership agreed to a defense authorization measure that did not include a provision sponsored by former Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) that would have allowed women to pay for abortions performed by military personnel.

Other groups are hoping to advance their agenda by looking beyond Capitol Hill.

“It doesn’t make much sense to go to Congress and try and get any legislation,” said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman on climate change for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Environmental groups will focus on the actions of executive agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in the process of developing regulations to curb greenhouse gases, Kreindler said.

But with even a Democratic-controlled Congress unable to pass comprehensive energy legislation, Kreindler said his group is now trying to “change the conversation outside of Washington.”

He said the strategy in the next several years is for environmentalists to reach out to key constituencies such as those involved in agriculture and transportation policy to reach consensus on how to reverse global warming.

Gay rights groups, who scored a major victory when the lame-duck Congress repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring openly gay service members, are not expecting a repeat of that success in 2011.

Instead, groups such as the Human Rights Campaign will be focusing heavily on efforts in the states to enact gay marriage laws as well as encouraging more private companies to provide domestic partner benefits.

Not all progressive groups view the new Congress as a setback.

Chad Ramsey, the federal legislative director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control group, said there may be more opportunities to forge alliances in the upcoming session.

He said many of the Democrats who lost in the recent election were gun rights advocates who were endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

On the other hand, some of the incoming Republicans elected in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania may be open to some gun control legislation such as tightening gun show loopholes, he said.

But Ramsey also said the new House Republican leaders are likely to push through measures that would weaken the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It is not a rosy picture. But it wasn’t last time either.”

Some liberal activists are holding out hope that the accomplishments of the lame-duck session may encourage President Barack Obama to continue to push for some of their agenda. Obama has already said he will keep trying to pass the DREAM Act.

Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, said the successes of that post-election session show that “persistence works,” even in the face of conservative opposition.

But even in the lame-duck session, liberals did not get everything they wanted. Progressive groups, including labor unions, bitterly opposed a tax cut deal negotiated by Obama and Republicans that retained tax reductions for those earning more than $250,000 per year and exempted estate tax for all but the wealthiest.

Baker said her group will be lobbying in the upcoming session to expedite judicial confirmations, slowed by Republican Senators’ opposition.

At this point, liberal groups are strategizing how they are going to put a spotlight on what will likely be emboldened Republicans, Baker said.

“Everybody is trying to figure out the new environment,” she said.

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