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GOP's big plans yield little gain

Republicans had high hopes for their agenda when they took Capitol Hill 12 years ago. Much remains unresolved.

December 06, 2006|Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Twelve years after Republicans stormed into power on Capitol Hill with ambitious plans for action on energy exploration, abortion and other key issues, the GOP wraps up its run at the helm this week with a legislative whimper.

One of the few bills that may emerge from Congress before it adjourns for the year would expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet even if the GOP succeeds in pushing the measure into law, it will be a more modest and much less controversial plan than party leaders envisioned just months ago.

In the House, a GOP-backed bill may pass that would require abortion providers to tell patients that fetuses feel pain. But the measure not only falls far short of initiatives Republicans once hoped to enact that would rein in abortions, it stands virtually no chance of taking effect -- the Senate has no intention of considering the bill before leaving town.

The energy and abortion bills are examples of the last gasps of an expiring GOP wish list.

With Democrats slated to take control of Congress in January, proposals to expand oil drilling and reduce abortions are unlikely to see the light of day during the next two years. Instead, they will join other mainstays of the Republican agenda -- such as abolishing the estate tax, limiting medical malpractice lawsuits and banning gay marriages -- on the legislative sidelines.

GOP lawmakers express resignation as they contemplate seeing many of their cherished goals consigned to oblivion, replaced by priorities near and dear to the hearts of Democrats.

"It's going to be a challenge ... and I say that tragically," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), whose bill on fetal pain will come up today for what almost assuredly will be its last vote in the foreseeable future.

A cornerstone of the Republican agenda was a pledge to control federal spending. But the party's congressional leaders have faced mounting criticism from their own rank-and-file members on this front as the federal budget deficit has grown in recent years. And in the final days of this congressional session, the GOP is making little effort to pass a series of bills to fund the federal government next year, much less implement any long-term budget restraints.

"There is a sense that the Republicans ultimately ... said, 'Let the Democrats sweep up after the elephants, " said Ross K. Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

As of Tuesday, Congress had cleared just two of 11 spending measures for the government -- one that provides money for the Pentagon, the other for the Department of Homeland Security. Rather than grapple with tough spending decisions for the array of other agencies, the Republicans plan instead to pass a stopgap funding measure, leaving it to the Democratic-controlled Congress to adopt new funding bills early next year.

G. William Hoagland, the top budget aide to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), chalked up this scenario to "a dispirited GOP."

The abortion bill pending before the House has been a second-tier priority for anti-abortion activists, said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Under it, women whose pregnancies are 20 weeks past fertilization would have to be informed that "substantial evidence" existed that fetuses experience pain as an abortion is performed. The bill's supporters hope this requirement could dissuade some women from following through with an abortion.

The measure's assertion that fetuses feel pain is in dispute. But in a sign of the relatively low importance attached to the measure, it is not being actively opposed by NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the nation's leading abortion rights groups.

Republicans scored some successes in the battles over abortion during their years in power. One of the most prominent was the 2003 passage of a bill banning so-called "partial-birth abortions," a procedure often used to end pregnancies during the second trimester.

The measure has yet to take effect, however, pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on its constitutionally. And this year, anti-abortion activists suffered a setback when Congress deadlocked on a measure that would have toughened parental-consent laws involving minors who crossed state lines for abortions.

Republicans have similarly had to scale back their hopes for expanding oil drilling off the nation's coastline.

House leaders had been holding out for a far-reaching measure that would have relaxed a decades-long ban on drilling in most coastal waters, including those in the Pacific Ocean. But pro-drilling industry groups lobbied the leaders to accept the more limited Senate bill that focuses only on the Gulf Coast.

"We want to take what we can get" before Democrats take over Capitol Hill, said Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.). "This is about a fraction of what we really wanted to do, but it's helpful."

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noam.levey@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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