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BY Joseph Esposito
Washington Bureau Chief
House leadership sees strong gains, but will past rifts return?
Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON—It may seem that the Republican Party is far from falling prey to the forces that have practically banished pro-life advocates from the Democratic Party.
After all, the House of Representatives has before it the prospect of a pro-life Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Dick Armey, and a pro-life--and newly powerful--party whip, Tom Delay. Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, long considered the House's pro-life leader, saw his profile raised considerably as Democrats and Republicans alike praised his fair handling of the Impeachment Hearings.
But pro-life and abortion advocates worry that a new battle for the soul of the Republican party is brewing, and will be in full force in the 2000 election.
According to Coleen Parro, executive director of the Republican National Coalition for Life, “We're headed toward a knock down, drag out fight.”
Pro-family activist Morton Blackwell disagrees, saying, “The Republican Party is the pro-life party, and it will stay the pro-life party. It will not nominate a candidate who is not pro-life.”
Historically, the Republican party has been pro-life. It has had a pro-life plank in its national platform since 1976. The platform adopted in 1996 promoted a human life amendment to the Constitution, endorsed a child's right to life, supported the appointment of pro-life judges, opposed federal funds for abortions, and urged expansion of the 14th Amendment to include unborn children.
But this last platform was adopted with considerable rancor. A significant, but unsuccessful, assault on the party's position was launched by more liberal members of the party, including several Republican governors. These include Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, George Pataki of New York and Pete Wilson of California, who is set to retire.
Among the most prominent players in pressuring the party to adhere to its Reagan-era position has been the republican National Coalition for Life. During 1991-1992, for example, they secured 100,000 pledges of support from party members in favor of the pro-life position.
Although pro-life forces were successful in 1996, the battle continues. Perhaps the opening salvo of the 2000 debate took place last January when the Republican National Committee met in California.
The party's governing body, which consists of a party chairman and two state committee members from each state, were presented with a hotly-debated proposal. Tim Lambert, the national committeeman from Texas, introduced a resolution which would cut off campaign funds and in-kind contributions to Republican candidates who support partial-birth abortion.
Lambert, who serves as president of the Texas Home School Coalition, told the Register that life issues are part of a“discussion about humanity itself.
“The reason I introduced the resolution was that I believe it was the right thing to do. The Republican party should be consistent with its platform, its verbiage. Our platform is very strong on that issue.”
Indeed, party office holders have been overwhelmingly opposed to partial-birth abortions. Few Republican members of either house of Congress support it, and Gov. Whitman is one of the few governors who do.
Yet, Lambert's proposal gained only 43 votes or little more than one-quarter of the membership of the party's national committee. Whitman helped lead the fight against it, but even several pro-life advocates opposed the resolution.
Among these were Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Gov. John Engler of Michigan. Rep. Hyde was also opposed.
Opponents expressed concerns about establishing “litmus tests” or adopting policies which would further divide the party. Others worried that a power to withhold funds, once granted, could be misused in the future.
Some important Republican leaders did, however, endorsed the effort. Among them were family activist Gary Bauer, who directs the Family Research Council, the policy wing of Focus on the Family, and magazine publisher and former Presidential primary candidate Steve Forbes; both are expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination. Also supportive was Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a popular Catholic with some national visibility.
One of the few members of Congress who championed the resolution was Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri. Also a potential presidential candidate, Ashcroft said at the time, “I support the proposed RNC resolution to withhold aid to those who support this barbarism. In the Party of Lincoln, there can be no place for ‘infanticide.’” The Christian coalition also favored the resolution. Randy Tate, its executive director, recently told the Register, “the great parties--whether Republican or Democrat--need to have certain basic values. Great parties should stand up against infanticide.”
Parro believes the reason for the resolution's failure is simple: “It was money, it was Whitman, and it was power politics.” She characterized pro-life supporters who voted against the Lambert resolution as “people who have a history of placing party loyalties over their pro-life convictions.“
Blackwell, a national committee member from Virginia for the past 10 years and a solid pro-life advocate, believes the defeat was due to a failure by pro-lifers to properly build support. “No groundwork was laid, no national pro-life organizations were involved. If there had been a major effort from the pro-life groups,” he argues, “I'm not sure what would have happened.”
But Lambert forecasts an internal battle in the party. A tension continues to exist among the old-guard “country club” economic conservatives and the religious conservatives who are relatively new to the GOP. This tension is likely to intensify as Republicans seek to gain the White House and retain their Congressional majority in 2000.
A member of the national committee for only two years, Lambert believes it's time for pro-life newcomers like himself to practice power politics within the party. “Our opponents were glad to give us the platform, but not the rules, We're going to be reasonable, but we're going to play hard-ball,” he said.
A version of the proposal has now been adopted in about ten states, including California, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama. Lambert said, “The resolution has helped our pro-life folks focus on the issue and why it's important. It's galvanized us at the grass roots.
On the other side, however, there is increased activity by “pro-choice” Republicans, somewhat bolstered by the easy reelections of Pataki, Gov. Tom Ridge, a Catholic, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, another Catholic, and others.
Whitman, who has become an anathema to social conservatives campaigned for candidates in 27 states in last fall's congressional elections. It's assumed that the wealthy second-term governor has national aspirations and, at the least, hopes to have a role in selecting the next Republican ticket.
While continuing to oppose the efforts of Whitman and other liberal Republicans on the pro-life issue, Colleen Parro raises a cautionary note: “There has been a lot of criticism that the pro-life movement has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party.”
“But the pro-life movement has caused the growth of the Republican party since the 1970s. Should the party turn its back on us, it would be a great loss to the party. The pro-life movement would continue to grow,” she emphasized.
So the battle has been joined. Keith Fournier, the president of the Catholic Alliance, said, “The struggle within the Republican party can best be described as a contest between libertarians and those with a moral compass for the future.”
“It's not a matter of big government, but rather what kind of government. Government is good only when it is moral,” he said.
Lambert told the Register, “What you're going to see over the next 22 months is a debate on life, family, and authentic human freedom--on what kind of life we will have in the 21st century.”
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.