WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are eager to stuff any budget deal with a host of conservative social policies, such as dismantling the new health care law and barring federal aid to Planned Parenthood.
Their most controversial plans are virtually certain to fail, since a limited deal to cut federal spending for the six months remaining in fiscal 2011 appears imminent, and GOP leaders seem willing to accept it without most of their social issue agenda.
Still, the anti-abortion, anti-health care advocates have kept incendiary issues in the political spotlight, and that could be a long-term risk for the Republican Party.
"There's a Republican economic agenda, and there's a social agenda. The problem for the party is that independents by and large do not share the social agenda," said Steven Smith, the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
Independent voters today lean slightly toward GOP candidates for Congress. A recent Quinnipiac Polling Institute survey found 36 percent of independents would vote for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives, while 27 percent would back Democrats. The error margin was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
The GOP edge, though, is fragile. The same survey said independents disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their job, 58 percent to 32 percent. They disliked Democrats even more, disapproving by a 66 percent to 24 percent margin.
Voters care most about the economy: 47 percent of all voters called the economy the most important issue. The federal budget was a distant second, at 13 percent; 6 percent cited health care.
Yet the House, on a largely party-line vote, in February included dozens of social-policy add-ons to its version of the fiscal 2011 budget. The Senate rejected it wholesale, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday he won't budge in opposing most of those provisions.
Negotiators are now trying to work out a deal. Government spending authority runs out on April 8, meaning most federal functions will shut down unless a budget is adopted. While agreement next week is widely expected, the final spending number, Republicans said privately, could go up or down depending on how many social-policy changes wind up in a compromise.
House Republicans included bans on funding for a White House "climate change czar," and for Environmental Protection Agency efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. Their bill also would prohibit federal money from going to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a favorite target of anti-abortion lawmakers because it provides abortion-related services.
Planned Parenthood is already barred from using federal dollars for most abortion services. The federal dollars it receives go toward services such as reproductive counseling and sex education.
The bill also would bar funds from being used to implement the 2010 health care overhaul law.
"These issues are important. I feel like I was elected to implement the Republican Pledge to America, and anything less, I can't accept," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. The pledge was the House GOP's blueprint for change, and included many of these policies.
Notably loyal to its provisions are the 87 House Republican freshmen. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., ran on the slogan, "Cut spending, create jobs, protect life." Friday, he disputed the notion that pushing hard for the social agenda is politically lethal.
"You don't give up on core issues," he said. "If you stick to your principles, you find even people who disagree with you respect you."
Still, all week, Democrats and their allies have tried to paint Republicans as extremists. Thursday night, 139 liberal activist groups sent the White House a letter expressing strong opposition to any such policy changes.
"This back-door means of legislating does not allow for adequate debate about the merits of such sweeping policy changes, which deserve full deliberation by both chambers in the course of the normal legislative process," the groups said.
Insiders say that some of the less-controversial changes will survive, to keep enough conservatives in line to pass the compromise.
"It's crucial to make a statement, to see Republicans are truly committed to certain principles," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.
But GOP leaders also understand the political peril of pushing these issues too hard. They're quietly advising conservatives to cool their rhetoric and drop the changes, noting that they'll have several other chances this year.
"These (changes) are extremely important," said Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia. "That being said, our constituents are most desirous of decreases in spending . . . we have to make the trains run on time."
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