Conservative Groups Bemoan Senate Barriers

Posted January 7, 2011 at 5:41pm

Socially conservative groups are confident they have the Republican-led House covered during the 112th Congress.

But the Senate is already proving a disappointment to their agenda.

As Congressional GOP leaders test the extent of their 2010 Election Day mandate in the coming months, lobbyists for organizations such as the Family Research Council, Christian Coalition of America and Focus on the Family claim the chamber’s 53-47 margin will likely offer no shortage of political headaches.

“We’ll have to see the first couple of [Senate] votes,” Christian Coalition of America lobbyist Jim Backlin said.

But early Senate warnings sounded for socially conservative groups back in December, when Sen. Mark Kirk — a freshman who assumed office early — cast an “aye” vote that helped repeal the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars openly gay service members. For five terms, the Illinois Republican represented a Democratic House district on Chicago’s North Shore, but he swung hard to the right ahead of his 2010 Senate run, a political course he’s already apparently reversed. The Christian Coalition lobbyist said Kirk’s lame-duck vote may be a harbinger of things to come in the Senate for conservative priorities.

“We were a little surprised by Kirk’s vote on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because he was considered a tea party favorite,” Backlin said.

Aside from Kirk, eight Senate Republicans voted for the DADT repeal, including Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Ensign (Nev.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Scott Brown (Mass.). Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) also voted for the bill, but he retired this year after two terms.

Backlin said his group is optimistic Voinovich’s replacement, freshman Sen. Rob Portman (R), will be a more reliably conservative vote than his predecessor.

As of week’s end, the groups were still finalizing their 2011 lobbying game plans. But Backlin and other advocates for socially conservative organizations expect Republican lawmakers to pivot toward proposals involving federal abortion funding, gay rights and stem-cell research once a vote is held on the pending repeal of the recently enacted health care law.

Tom McClusky, a Family Research Council lobbyist, said he expects his organization to score the health care repeal vote and then to turn to more discrete aspects of the 2010 rewrite that involve federal abortion funding. The group, which is run by former Louisiana state legislator Tony Perkins (R), will also try to cash in some of its political good will after handing out campaign contributions for the first time last cycle.

According to CQ MoneyLine, the Family Research Council’s Political Action Committee raised nearly $675,000, doling out more than $90,000 to incumbents and freshman alike, including GOP Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

“This is the first year we had a PAC that played a significant role in the election,” McClusky said. “We’ve had good relationships on the Hill, but that helps with the newer Members.

“We realize that the Senate is basically the brick wall for a lot of the conservative ideals,” he added.

The Family Research Council also may have played the role of matchmaker for a handful of new Member offices. While declining to name aides, McClusky said his group made job candidate “introductions” to Hartzler, as well as to Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) and Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.).

On Friday, Huelskamp spokesman Louisa Brooks denied that the group has been involved in any hiring decisions. An e-mailed request to Hartzler’s spokesman was not returned by deadline Friday.

McClusky’s group is also lobbying for the new House GOP majority to hold hearings once the DADT repeal is in place. While not providing details, he said he’s planning to do “a lot” of messaging between now and 2012 on the repeal.

“If something like this is going to happen, we want to make sure those within the military who have a problem with this change in policy are protected and that our military stays the premier military that it always has been,” he said.

Ashley Horne, a federal policy analyst at Focus on the Family, said she’s optimistic a class of 87 House Republican freshmen means that her group will get more face time on the Hill. Still, She stressed “a need to be vigilant” on issues such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a version of which passed the House in 2007. It would bar discrimination against gays.

“We’ve dealt with a Senate for a long time that hasn’t exactly been pro-family,” she said. “You will see more conservative-leaning proposals coming out of the House. Will they all pass? Doubtful.”