Right scales back election year agenda

After a year in which many of their highest hopes were dashed, diminished or deferred, fiscal and social conservatives are compiling less ambitious legislative wish lists for 2006.

After a year in which many of their highest hopes were dashed, diminished or deferred, fiscal and social conservatives are compiling less ambitious legislative wish lists for 2006.

Republicans of all stripes looked at 2005, with expanded majorities in the House and Senate and President Bush just starting his second term, as a rare opportunity to win enactment of favored legislation.

But the new year is not seen that way at all. “The political reality is, generally speaking, that you have a tough time with big, ambitious ideas in an election year,” said former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the president of the anti-tax Club for Growth.

No prize was bigger, or ultimately more elusive, last year than Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security. But other desired, big-ticket legislative items, from a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to an extension of the 15 percent tax rate on capital gains and dividends, also fell short.

Projected entitlement cuts were trimmed, a tax-cut package was pushed into the new year, and a reformation of the tax code never made it out of the legislative starting gate.

Many interest groups have scaled back their 2006 dockets, although few admit it.

“We decided a couple of religious-discrimination issues would be at the top of our agenda,” said Jim Backlin, legislative director for the Christian Coalition. Among them are an effort to force cable companies to carry all local signals, particularly those of religious broadcasters, on their systems and one to support the use of Jesus’ name in military chaplains’ prayers.

The “must carry” broadcasting issue was the top priority for the group last year, according to its website. But the No. 2 item, a Social Security overhaul, is no longer on the list.

Last year’s Christian Coalition agenda had 15 items; this year’s version has just 10.

In some cases, new legislative wish lists look a lot like the old ones. Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, disputed the notion that expectations for 2006 have been scaled back.

“In no way do I feel that we’ve lost momentum,” said Lafferty, whose group remains focused on a litany of judiciary issues, including the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and constitutional amendments supporting the Pledge of Allegiance and banning gay marriage.

Lafferty chalks up stagnation on a number of the group’s highest priorities last year to “the nature of the beast.”

“Congress is not a fast-moving beast,” she said.

Leaders at the Christian Coalition and Traditional Values Coalition, like those at other interest groups, lobbying shops and think tanks around town, will listen for their primary priorities when President Bush makes his State of the Union address late this month.

“We make our views known before the State of the Union each year,” Backlin said.

“We’re definitely hoping that the president will make mention of the success of adult stem-cell research,” said Lanier Swann, director of government relations at Concerned Women for America. Many social conservatives are preparing for an early Senate battle over embryonic stem-cell research. Several activists pointed to the end-of-year enactment of legislation supporting cord-blood research as a major victory in 2005.

Fiscal conservatives will be parsing the president’s words and the numbers behind them.

Brian Riedl, a federal budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, said he hopes Bush’s speech has “a low price tag.”

Typically, the State of the Union includes a long list of proposals that add up to a big cost for taxpayers, Riedl said.

“Instead, call for reductions in wasteful and unnecessary spending,” Riedl advised. “Lay out a broad vision of why small government is good for taxpayers.”

Riedl lauded lawmakers for what he called “cosmetic efforts” to rein in government spending in 2005. But in 2006, he said, “they need to do a better job of walking the walk.”

While most of official Washington expects a tougher legislative road in a midterm election year, one tax lobbyist with close ties to the House and White House expressed hope that the approach of the end of Rep. Bill Thomas’s (R-Calif.) tenure as Ways and Means chairman would prompt enactment of new tax laws.

“Thomas is trying to cement a legacy,” the lobbyist said.

In addition to the Alito confirmation fight and abortion-related issues, social conservatives are gearing up for a Senate battle on immigration policy after House passage of a bill in 2005.

The issue tops the conservative Eagle Forum’s Web page.

“Senators who are up for reelection in 2006 had better listen to the House votes,” longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly warned in a column.

Whatever their legislative goals, activists may not have much time to make them a reality before the next election.

“There is a shorter window,” said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.). He said a string of legislative victories in 2005 was overshadowed by high expectations on Social Security, the enactment of laws just before long recesses and the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the latter part of the year. A burgeoning lobbying scandal could easily be added to the list.

“Last year was the year for vision,” Putnam said. “This next year’s going to be a year for nose-to-the-grindstone, competent governance.”