Corporate America Vs. The Religious Right?

As volcanic Newt delights social conservatives, business frets

Say adieu to the New Newt. The House Speaker, trim, tamed, and faintly bipartisan of late, has returned to his more familiar, decidedly more belligerent guise as the Georgia Slasher.

In recent weeks, Gingrich has blasted a Senate GOP tobacco bill as too liberal, threatened to sink business-backed legislation to help shore up the International Monetary Fund, and directed lieutenants to take on the Clinton Administration. Once again, there are the daily fiery sermons from Gingrich on the President's character or lack thereof. The rhetoric harks back to the 1995-96 "shut-the-government" legislative session--and tactics that backfired in the 1996 campaign.

So as the nation approaches the 1998 elections, the obvious question is: Why bring back the old Newt? The answer: thunder on the right. Furious that the GOP leadership has failed to push for their social and moral concerns, religious conservatives and right-wingers have turned up the heat on Gingrich & Co. With the strong economy lulling many Republicans into complacency about a Democratic White House, Republican leaders feel they have to energize the party's conservatives--or face low turnout in November, when House control hangs in the balance.

The strategy could backfire. By courting hardliners, GOP leaders have turned the legislative process into a game of political hostage-taking. Case in point: the IMF fight. Religious activists are insisting that anti-abortion provisions be included in the $18 billion package. Gingrich says he's willing to see the measure die unless the White House cooperates with GOP scandal investigations. The demands of social conservatives are also tying up bipartisan trade liberalization, a new budget, tax cuts, and education reform.

House Republican leaders think their solidify-the-base strategy will enable them to expand their 11-seat cushion in the House. Besides, party pros reckon, if they fight for conservative principles now, they can always avoid the gridlock rap by cutting a few last-minute deals with Clinton come fall.

But some strategists fear the return to head-banging could turn off moderate Republicans and independents. "The charge that we're a do-nothing Congress, linked with our focus on sex and scandal, could leave voters soured on Republicans," frets a GOP pollster. Certainly, Gingrich has been hurt: In a late-April Harris poll, his already dismal negative rating rose to 62%, from 56% in February.

Business lobbyists are also worried about the Republicans' renewed embrace of the Religious Right. Every day Congress spends debating social issues, business lobbyists complain, it loses a day working on Corporate America's priorities, including trade expansion, reform of the legal system, and strengthening ties to China. Religious fundamentalists say these priorities elevate profits over moral concerns, such as Beijing's human-rights record. Business bristles at these charges. Some Christian activists "would like a holy war with business," fumes R. Bruce Josten, senior vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

DOBSON FACTOR. Dems, naturally, are delighted. "Newt's a volcano spewing lava," says Representative Martin Frost (D-Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I want him on TV every day."

Meanwhile, the rest of the party leadership shows signs of moving right, too. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) dined on May 4 with James L. Dobson, the powerful leader of the fundamentalist group Focus on the Family. Dobson has threatened to bolt the GOP unless party leaders shape up. And on May 8, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) planned to hold a Capitol Hill summit with Dobson, Gary L. Bauer of the Family Research Council, and Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate. "We want them to know that their agenda is our agenda," says a senior Republican aide.

Already, social conservatives say they have assurances that the GOP will force votes on cherished priorities: a ban on partial-birth abortion, repeal of the "marriage penalty" tax, a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools, and tax breaks for families of private- and religious-school students.

That should satisfy the right. Now, GOP leaders just have to figure out how to keep other Republicans happy, too. Otherwise, the only cheerful partisans come fall may be the Democrats.

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