Commentary: Can The GOP Get Down To Business?

The Religious Right wants action on social issues that could distract Congress

On Nov. 3 many of America's corporate chieftains cheered the reelection of George W. Bush, knowing they could look forward to four more business-friendly years of Republican rule. With Bush safely ensconced in the White House and the GOP boosting its margin in Congress, big items on business' wish list seemed within reach: tort reform, permanent tax cuts, continued regulatory relief, a comprehensive energy bill, and private Social Security investment accounts. The election was nothing but "good news for business," exults Chet Helck, president and chief operating officer of Raymond James Financial Ltd. (RJF ), a St. Petersburg brokerage.

If only it were that simple. With the Religious Right calling in Bush Administration chits and with both parties promising to wage war over judicial nominations, some of the joy is ebbing out of those corner offices. Looming on the horizon is a new round in the culture wars, sparked by protracted and bitter fights over appointment of judges, abortion rights, and gay marriage. Hashing out those conflicts could render Congress a barren battleground, stalling progress on a bottom-line business agenda that has traditionally steered clear of divisive social issues.

Little wonder that some executives worry that their economic priorities could be sidetracked by a resurgent Religious Right. "I don't see the Republican win as an open invitation to drive every issue that the [cultural conservative] groups found important right through the doors," says Kendig Kneen, chief executive officer of machinery maker Al-jon Inc. in Ottumwa, Iowa. "Abortion can do a pretty quick job of dividing up Congress and diverting them [from economic issues]." Business leaders, adds Stanton D. Anderson, executive vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "just want to steer clear of [the culture wars] altogether and stick to business."

It's the height of irony for a Corporate America that opened its hearts and wallets to Republicans in Election '04. Despite unprecedented business fund-raising and get-out-the-vote efforts on Bush's behalf, leaders of the Religious Right contend that, by turning out an additional 4 million of their faithful, they assured Bush's victory and now deserve a spot at the head of the table. "The Republicans are in power because the evangelicals and social conservatives voted them into power," says Christian Broadcasting Network Chairman Pat Robertson, who started the Religious Right mobilization with his own 1988 Presidential campaign. "If the Republicans falter, they will lose big-time down the road."

To make sure that doesn't happen, Christian conservatives are already pressuring a reelected Bush to emphasize the moral agenda they favor. The priorities: naming strict constructionists to the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships; further restricting abortion until the Bush nominees can overturn Roe v. Wade; outlawing gay marriage; banning human cloning; diverting more federal funding to "faith-based" social programs that are administered by church groups; and taking on Hollywood and other purveyors of American popular culture over what they perceive as rampant sexuality and glorified violence.

On a Crusade

What's more, the new social crusaders are eager to test their political clout. One early target is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican who is in line to become Judiciary Committee Chairman. Religious conservatives, furious with Specter for suggesting that anti-abortion judges might not be able to win Senate confirmation, have launched a campaign to deny him the gavel, flooding Capitol Hill with telephone calls and e-mail messages.

While corporate lobbyists have worked closely with Specter on crafting asbestos-liability legislation and on other business matters, they're not inclined to defend him from the Religious Right. If Specter becomes the first post-election casualty of the culture wars, it could delay a key element of tort reform. And it would make a lot of chief executives nervous that, in the coming battle over the courts, their economic priorities could suffer from collateral damage.

Yet even if social issues don't sidetrack the business agenda, there are other potential problems ahead. Despite the 10-vote Republican edge in the Senate, the GOP still falls five votes short of the 60 necessary to shut down Democratic filibusters. That means Republican senators can't make headway on many of their bills without a few compromises with Democrats on issues such as tort reform and energy legislation.

White House officials insist there is plenty of room in the GOP's Big Tent for cultural and economic conservatives, and they see no conflict between their priorities. Social conservatives "are not due any special claim or privilege," says White House counselor Karl Rove. Anxious CEOs can only hope that Rove is as right about that as he was with his election prediction.

By Richard S. Dunham and Howard Gleckman with Lorraine Woellert and Paul Magnusson

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