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GOP social agenda creeps into Capitol Hill's dialogue


WASHINGTON -- It's June, and on Capitol Hill the long pent-up Republican social agenda is busting out all over.

Thursday brought a heated debate on school prayer. Tuesday and Wednesday, the issue was flag-burning. A limited abortion ban comes up next week. The effect of the "homosexual agenda" on public schools is to be examined soon. Efforts to eliminate race-based hiring, the ban on assault weapons and pornography in cyberspace also are percolating up.

Seven months after the 1994 election gave the Republicans a congressional majority, conservative forces are beginning to push forward their list of antidotes to America's perceived social ills.

"I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a Presbyterian minister in Anaheim, Calif., and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which he says represents 31,000 churches. "This is our finest hour in the last half-century."

All the emotional proposals that GOP leaders suppressed earlier in the year, to maintain party unity while Congress focused on the economic reforms staked out in the "Contract with America," are now on the table.

Mindful that the religious right and other conservative advocacy groups influence many Republican core voters, party leaders are eager to reward such groups for their support in last year's election.

"The timing is right; it's starting to move," Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said of the "moral, cultural, pro-family agenda" his group supports.

Although the Republican victory in 1994 signaled that Congress would take a more conservative approach on social issues, the enthusiasm shown by many lawmakers -- especially the large class of House freshmen -- has caught some Democrats by surprise.

"It's amazing how vibrant it is; I don't know how we're going to keep track of it all," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, who is leading the Democratic resistance on issues of women's rights and abortion.

"They're going to have us in chadors within the week," she quipped, referring to the traditional garment worn by Muslim or Hindu women.

So far, though, there has been more sound and fury than 'D legislative action.

Lots of public hearings are scheduled this month and during the summer. Some action may be taken in committees. The House is expected to vote just before the Fourth of July on a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

But much of the social agenda is unlikely to arrive at final action until next year because, Republicans in Congress concede, it is not quite their highest priority.

"The difference between this Congress and the last ones is that we will allow these issues to come up for a vote at some point; we aren't afraid of them," said Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho. "But when Republicans talk to each other privately and publicly, nobody says these issues are at the top of the list of things to be done."

At the top of the list for most Republicans is the difficult task of cutting enough spending to balance the budget and to cut taxes. That battle has already brought about a confrontation with President Clinton, who this week vetoed the Republicans' first major attempt to cut popular spending programs. The dispute could easily keep Congress busy through December.

"The economic agenda has to come first," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would handle school prayer and other social proposals.

Advocates for the religious right and self-proclaimed family values say they don't mind if the budget comes first. They point out that the $500-per-child tax credit supported by Republicans in the House and by many in the Senate is also one of their goals.

"It might not be so bad if some of these things don't come up in this Congress," Mr. Reed said. "Why not hold some stuff back until 1997, when we will probably have a Republican president and a larger Republican majority in the House and Senate?"

What's more, the budget itself is a battleground for social issues, from funding for the arts and public television to family planning and legal services for the poor. Republicans are using an ideological yardstick to choose which programs to preserve.

On some divisive issues, though, advocates have undertaken a calculated effort to proceed slowly, with lots of public discussion, so their proposals won't appear to be extreme.

They want to avoid the sort of scene that occurred at the 1992 Republican convention, where speeches by Patrick J. Buchanan and other social conservatives set a tone that some Republicans feared made their party seem intolerant, even hateful.

"We have to talk about these things in a Reaganesque way so they don't scare people," said Gary L. Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, another leading advocacy group. "We certainly don't want to look like we're sticking it in the face of our fellow Americans. That would be a disaster."

Instead, Republicans have decided to open the debate delicately.

When a House Judiciary subcommittee opened hearings Thursday on a constitutional amendment to permit some form of school prayer, no specific proposal was offered. At least six more hearings around the country will be held this summer before detailed legislative work begins.

"This is a very complex, very difficult issue," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, the Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee. He acknowledges that even supporters of such an amendment can't agree on how it should be worded.

Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said he sees calculated timing by the Republicans in highlighting social issues just as Congress is seeking agreement on painful spending cuts in social programs.

"You bring up the flag amendment now, for example, so maybe the veterans won't notice cuts in their benefits," Mr. Fazio suggested.

But Mr. Fazio's Republican counterpart, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, said there is too much pressure from Republican members and advocacy groups promoting the social issues to keep them bottled up.

Because their party is so divided, the Republican leadership has promised only to allow the social issues to come up for a vote. It's making no effort to marshal the troops into line.

"This gets us off the hot spot," Mr. Boehner said of the social debate under way. "It makes some of our people happy, and some of our people unhappy. So we don't take sides."

Part of the problem, Mr. Boehner added, is that House Speaker Newt Gingrich has made too many promises to too many groups that their causes would get a hearing.

"Newt is the softest guy in the world; he can't say no to anybody," Mr. Boehner said. "He makes these commitments, and we have to honor them."

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