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Congress Braces for Renewed Salvos in 'Culture War'

Politics: Budget deal blurred parties' differences. Returning to debate on social issues offers chance to stress their clashing visions.

By Edwin Chen
The Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1997

They're back: End affirmative action. Punish flag desecration. Halt funding for the arts. Bring back prayer in the schools.

Like tulips in springtime, these divisive social issues are popping up all over Capitol Hill.

But when the "culture war" resumes in full force in Congress, do not be misled by the angry rhetoric from either side. In fact, many lawmakers are hardly unhappy over the resurgence of such controversies.

After a bipartisan budget agreement that blurred the differences between the two parties, the fights over race and gender preferences, freedom of expression and a woman's right to choose represent a propitious opportunity to accentuate sharply clashing visions on an array of issues that are very real to most Americans.

Thus, the exercise may be less about getting something done than about creating a fresh record in coming months as Congress approaches another election year.

"Both sides have strong incentives in many ways to see these issues emerge as flash points," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) agreed. "They are defining issues," he said. "I like to call them bright-light issues--issues that show the differences between the two parties."

While many of these proposals derive their most enthusiastic support from the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, some attract considerable Democrat backing. And some members of Congress take sides reluctantly, preferring that the inflammatory issues simply go away.

On Tuesday, one bright-light issue flared in the House, while another hovered over the Senate. Despite the coincidence, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) insisted that "there's no concerted effort" to bring up these controversies all at once.

Two House subcommittees convened a joint hearing as the GOP renewed its assault on the National Endowment for the Arts. Leading the charge to halt federal funding of the agency was House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Proclaiming himself a firm believer in "artistic freedom," the Texan waved a $1 bill to emphasize his belief that the NEA should be perfectly free to receive donations--but not a penny from Uncle Sam.

Armey later told reporters he believes the House is going to "zero out NEA" this year. The GOP-dominated Congress failed to kill the agency last year but managed to cut its funding by 39%, to $99.5 million.

The Senate, meanwhile, is abuzz over legislation that would make a particular abortion procedure associated with late-term pregnancies a criminal offense. Floor debate on the divisive measure could begin today.

As currently written, the legislation faces a near-certain veto by President Clinton. Such a measure was approved by the 104th Congress but Clinton rejected it because it did not provide for exemptions when the life or health of a mother is at stake.

The abortion bill illustrates an interesting dimension of the culture war: Not all emotional social issues break down entirely along party lines. For instance, 77 House Democrats voted for the "partial-birth" abortion bill earlier this year; many of their Senate counterparts are expected to follow suit when the measure comes to a vote there.

Similarly, not all controversial measures originate with Republicans. A bill introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being denounced by social conservatives as a "gay jobs bill" because, they contend, it would confer added on-the-job protection against discrimination.

Abortion also is likely to be a major bone of contention when the House, perhaps later this week, takes up a measure to authorize $32 billion over the next two years for the State Department and foreign aid. Abortion foes intend to amend the bill by imposing restrictions on international family planning assistance.

Among other controversial proposals are measures pertaining to religious freedom, flag desecration and affirmative action.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee approved a constitutional amendment that would give Congress authority to ban desecration of Old Glory. It marks the third time since 1990 that Congress has tried to pass such a measure. Most recently, the effort in the Senate fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the proposal to the states for ratification.

On another hotly contested constitutional amendment, more than 100 House members last week jointly introduced a measure that would permit religious expression on public property, including prayer in schools. Two similar proposals failed to make it out of the House Judiciary Committee in the last session of Congress.

Among those most infuriated by the proliferation of warmed-over social legislation is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has scornfully labeled the GOP-controlled Congress as a "do-over" legislature.

"They keep bringing back these issues, I guess, because they feel like they can exploit them and maybe drive a wedge between some Democrats," Boxer said. "But it just keeps them from doing things the American people want--jobs, education, protecting the environment."

But Craig, who chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee, disagreed, saying that most of the GOP-sponsored proposals have "very large constituencies . . . and they deserve to come to the fore. Plus, they are issues many of us campaigned on."

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