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Bush, Social Conservatives Testing Each Other's Muscle

November 17, 2002|Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks after the remarkable GOP victory in the congressional elections, President Bush and the hard-core conservatives who make up an important part of his support are already butting heads.

During the lame-duck session of Congress that opened last week, Bush focused on two issues that appeal to Republican centrists: national security and the economy.

But these do not energize the party's rock-ribbed conservatives. Abortion and school prayer are the social right's kinds of issues. Then there is the dwindling number of moderate Republicans whose votes will be crucial and can't be taken for granted.

The lame-duck session suggests that tensions within the Republican coalition will pose risks for the president even after the GOP assumes narrow control of both the House and the Senate next year.

Bush "is going to have to work with conservative Republicans," said K.B. Forbes, a Republican strategist and former aide to presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. "They're pivotal. Conservatives are on cloud nine."

But at the same time, the strategist Forbes acknowledged, Bush has to "build the broad message" that will attract centrists and independents.

Some issues allow the president to appeal to many parts of the Republican spectrum at once. His proposal last week to subject as many as 850,000 government jobs below policymaking levels to competition from private contractors appealed to a broad range of Republicans for its claim of more efficient government service and its potential to undercut federal employee unions.

But as often as not, Bush has to choose between the various wings of his party. The terrorism insurance bill last week was one such occasion.

For economic reasons, Bush supports providing backup government insurance for damage caused by terrorism. He argues that it will jump-start construction projects delayed by a lack of insurance.

Some conservatives, however, worry that the legislation could inspire a host of frivolous lawsuits and enrich the nation's trial lawyers, a group high on conservatives' enemies list.

Some conservatives in the House, led by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), threatened to block the bill. Bush intervened and twisted arms, and the House passed the bill Thursday.

The lesson, observers say, is that the president can roll over the conservatives when he wants to.

Bush can "to a certain extent ignore the right," said a senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on condition on anonymity. "He's the king of the Republican Party. Unlike his father, he has hardly any vulnerability to his right, which gives him maximum flexibility to move to the center."

But the same day provided a counterexample: the bankruptcy reform bill. Bush and pro-business Republicans favored the bill, designed to limit the growing number of personal bankruptcies, but social conservatives opposed an amendment that prevented antiabortion activists from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying fines for blocking access to abortion clinics. After months of negotiation, House conferees hammered out a compromise that would prohibit anyone blocking legitimate businesses from using the bankruptcy law to avoid fines.

But when the bill came to a vote Thursday, a handful of Republicans still opposed it and helped block it from being considered.

Then, about 2 in the morning on Friday, Republican House leaders revived the bill, passing it without the amendment.

That left the bill in a form that the Senate, still in Democratic hands during the lame-duck session, would not pass. So the measure, which has accounted for considerable time and effort from Congress, will die when the lame-duck session concludes this week.

The lesson from the bankruptcy bill is that the president ignores conservatives at his peril.

"What they did was send a message that, 'We want to help you with your agenda, but don't run over us roughshod,' " said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

"It's a shot across the bow of the White House," agreed Ross K. Baker, a political scientist and expert on Congress. "They really have to be careful that conservatives in the House aren't so emboldened by the results of the election that they seriously overreach."

Bush bristles at the suggestion that he has a balancing act on his hands. "I don't take cues from anybody," he said in a news conference last week. "I just do what I think is right. That's just the way I lead."

But as Bush and his team look ahead to his 2004 reelection race, they are all too aware that divisions with social conservatives helped sink his father's reelection bid in 1992.

As a result, Bush is thought likely to try to follow the model of another recent Republican president. Ronald Reagan publicly endorsed the conservatives' social agenda but did little to implement it, instead focusing on tax cuts and other economic issues.

"It's an approach that was successful for Reagan," Baker said.

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