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Welcome or Not, Back to Culture War

Casual observers of American politics could be excused if, surveying the landscape, they assume we’re back in 1996.

There’s a personally popular and yet deeply divisive Democratic president running for re-election who is triangulating against Congress. Republicans and Democrats are jousting over the latest iteration of the culture war. Moderate Democrats are running from their budget shadows.

Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is lurking about.

Unfortunately for fans of the mid-’90s wars over religion, morality and politics, the blast from the past currently gripping Washington, D.C., might not last long if GOP leaders, who’d rather focus on the economy and President Barack Obama, have anything to say about it.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said last week that while “it gets people energized,” social issues will not be the primary theme of the year.

“I think, in the end, the issue that’s
going to be paramount come November is going to be jobs and the economy. At some point the narrative is going to shift back to that,” Thune said.

The problem, Republicans acknowledged, is their inability to keep the issue focused on religious freedoms, which some polling indicates plays well with independents and Catholic voters.

But with the issue being increasingly viewed as a question of women’s health and access to contraception, those same polls show Republicans taking criticism, particularly with women.

If the issue is to work for the GOP, Republicans need to keep the focus on “the Obama administration’s efforts to intervene into people’s everyday lives,” a GOP leadership aide said.

“That’s what our focus needs to be as we continue to pursue this issue as a Conference” and not become drawn into a full-scale culture fight, the aide added.

Sparked by the Health and Human Services Department’s January decision to require employers, including religiously affiliated schools and institutions, to provide contraception services through their health insurance plans, top Republicans initially embraced the new round of culture wars.

In rare floor speech earlier this month, Speaker John Boehner denounced the decision, arguing, “If the president does not reverse the Department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.

“This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand and will not stand,” the Ohio Republican added.

Other national Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and the field of presidential hopefuls, quickly picked up the issue.

Republicans were feeling good about it. Although Boehner and McConnell were not interested in seeing social issues take center stage in their messaging this election year, the contraception rule gave them an easy and powerful way to rally their base.

Sensing that, the White House quickly stepped in and announced a new compromise, one that would exempt those institutions from the rule, putting the onus for providing contraceptive services onto the institutions’ insurance providers.

For leadership, that victory seemed to do the trick — Boehner and McConnell have both largely avoided the issue, not referencing it in their formal statements to the media. And although both men have faced questions on contraception from the media, leadership aides said both are eager to get back to hitting the White House on its economic and job-creation record and to not get bogged down in social issues.

Unfortunately for them, the controversy has taken on a life of its own. GOP presidential nomination contender and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who is a devout Catholic, has made the rule a central talking point, routinely accusing Obama of attempting to curb religious freedoms.

In the Senate, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has taken up the cause and hopes to force the chamber to vote on an amendment that would extend the exemption to anyone who opposes contraception on moral grounds.

In the House, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Thursday held a hearing in which he called witnesses who all criticized the rule.

Their efforts have revved up a GOP base that has at times been listless this year and has given the deeply divided Congressional conference a chance to rally together.

But those internal gains have come at a cost as Democrats have capitalized on the GOP’s efforts. Senate Democrats, led by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) have repeatedly laid into Republicans.

“It’s extreme, it is dangerous … it puts politics between women and their health care,” Murray said at a press conference last week.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), one of a handful of Senate Democrats who served through the culture wars of the 1990s, lamented: “There they go again. The same old story. This is an attack by the men’s club. … The GOP agenda gives women one option: barefoot and pregnant.”

In the House, a group of female lawmakers walked out of Issa’s Thursday hearing in protest not only of the subject matter but of the fact that Issa had not included a woman in the panel of religious leaders who were testifying about the rule’s effects.

The hearing — and photos of the panel of five men — have become a rallying point for progressives and Democrats, and Murray on Friday hammered Issa.

“I’m sure by now many of my colleagues here have seen the picture of this all-male hearing. It’s a picture that says a thousand words. And it’s one that most women thought they left behind,” Murray said, adding that “from the moment they came into power, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been waging a war on women’s health.”

On the presidential level, the hits kept coming as well. Democrats began dredging up old quotes from Santorum that they charged show a misogynistic streak. At one point, Lautenberg accused Santorum of believing women “should not strive for professional success.” And then on Thursday, Santorum rainmaker Foster Friess quipped during an MSNBC interview that, “Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”

It was a statement that broke through any coverage of transportation bills or payroll tax cut conferences.

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