Culture-war veterans hold fire, for now

After a long battle with conservatives on social issues and judicial nominations, Democratic-aligned interest groups are hailing the coming congressional changeover and weighing exactly how and when to exert their influence.

After a long battle with conservatives on social issues and judicial nominations, Democratic-aligned interest groups are hailing the coming congressional changeover and weighing exactly how and when to exert their influence.

Republican control of the Capitol may have forced abortion-rights and civil-liberties advocates to play perpetual defense, but those wilderness years also gave the groups valuable practice at building coalitions across the aisle and branding themselves as more mainstream than their conservative counterparts. 

Now, as Democrats prepare to assume the majority, these veterans of the culture wars are seeking to shape the agenda of the new leadership. Democratic lawmakers have outlined ambitious goals on Iraq and economic policy, however, challenging their interest-group allies to pick their battles without adopting the confrontational tactics that many believe helped derail the GOP.

“We’re definitely taking a look at the way conservative groups approach” abortion, said Donna Crane, government relations director at NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Specifically, we are going to not do what they do, which is use this issue for political gain.”

NARAL has aimed its recent efforts less at preserving women’s right to an abortion than at making the procedure, as former President Clinton first put it, “safe, legal and rare.” One of the family-planning packages strongly backed by NARAL and Planned Parenthood boasts as its chief sponsor new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who describes himself as pro-life.

That “prevention-first” approach is designed to win support from both Democratic and Republican abortion opponents in both parties, capitalizing on the defeat of anti-abortion initiatives in South Dakota, Oregon and California. Jackie Payne, government-relations director at Planned Parenthood, predicted that the Reid bill, which “polls extremely well,” would gain freshman supporters next year.

“I don’t think we need to play games,” Payne said. “I honestly believe we’re going for such a common-sense agenda … We don’t have to look to [conservatives] for strategies.”

Conservative groups of all stripes, from the Concerned Women of America to the Committee for Justice, found common ground this session in the campaign to confirm Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito as well as a slew of federal circuit nominees whose conservative records alarmed Democrats and civil-liberties groups alike. Yet a Senate Judiciary Committee gavel held by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) does not herald an interest-group role reversal, said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director at People for the American Way.

“The basic M.O. and attitude is a little bit different” among liberal-leaning groups active on nominations, Mincberg said, adding that “you’re not going to see us saying the harsh things that some of the Manny Mirandas of the world have said.” Miranda, a former Senate GOP leadership aide, earned a reputation for aggression as head of the conservative Third Branch Conference.

Mincberg, like several fellow advocates, also asserted his willingness to disagree with Democrats when necessary. Democrats will face their first civil liberties test on the Bush administration’s program of surveillance without warrants — which the Justice Department inspector general this week began investigating — as well as on the White House-pushed detainee trials bill that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has proposed rolling back.

“Were going to push just as hard on the Democrats … as we did on the Republicans,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Their voting records on our scorecard are definitely better, but that does not mean they’re perfect.”

Fredrickson pointed to a different risk for interest groups looking forward to a Democratic Congress — that activists might become less eager to pressure a party perceived as more friendly. “We’re not willing to wait,” she said.

The Judiciary chairmanship belongs to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for at least one more week, a narrow window in which to take up six hotly contested judicial nominations that the White House resubmitted to the Senate just after the election. Specter has expressed an intention to vote again on the six while acknowledging the emboldened opposition from Leahy and other panel Democrats.

“The White House can send these nominations up to the Hill, but that does not mean they’re going to be taken up,” said Dick Woodruff, senior legislative adviser at Alliance for Justice. “Gridlock for the next two years would be fine [on judicial picks].”

Woodruff said he would be watching closely as Democrats weigh “how far they are willing to go” in revisiting the detainee bill, a move likely to spark a veto threat from Bush that would require 16 Senate Republican votes to override.

On gay-rights issues, such as employment non-discrimination and expansion of the hate-crimes law, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese took a respectful view of the long to-do list facing his Democratic allies.

“One of the most important things we can do is be sensitive to the fact that the new leadership in this Congress, [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] and Reid, have a huge responsibility to speak to the issues the American people couldn’t have been clearer about in putting them there: the war in Iraq and corruption in government,” Solmonese said.

Though the gay community might see its issues move lower on the priority list, Solmonese said, such pragmatism is a small price to pay to end the Republicans’ prolonged attacks on gay marriage. The page he plans to borrow from conservative groups’ playbook: “Be really smart and be really strategic.”

Like abortion-rights groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has used the Republican majority to develop a political strategy with bipartisan appeal that it will continue to pursue. Reinstating the lapsed assault weapons ban, a high priority for many urban Democrats, is outranked on the Brady Campaign agenda by boosting law enforcement funding and strengthening background checks.

“My goal is to get us to a position where both Republicans and Democrats are coming to us and asking for our endorsement,” Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke said. “That hasn’t really been the case.”

Endorsements and contributions often help bolster interest groups’ influence with lawmakers. The groups consulted for this story that maintain PACs gave more than $1.6 million this cycle, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, but only two GOP recipients of their largess, Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Deborah Pryce (Ohio), who will cede her leadership post next year, won reelection.

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