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This week brings to Capitol Hill a bunch of familiar conservative standards that play like a greatest-hits package from a venerable rock band: A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Another amendment to outlaw flag burning. Tax cuts pitched as a family value. But if the songs remain the same, the front man has gone missing. For social conservatives, getting their issues a public airing has been a cakewalk since President George W. Bush took office in 2001, but legislative victories have been few and far between. Now with the social-conservative champion, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), exiting the stage, and with economic and security issues threatening to eclipse social issues at the ballot box, political observers are watching closely to see if the social-conservative movement can maintain its clout and muster up its mojo as it has in the past three election cycles. Though DeLay’s successor as majority leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), isn’t unsympathetic, he’s hardly the same kind of standard-bearer as DeLay, who proclaimed earlier this year that “the enemies of virtue” were “on the march,” and that the remedy was “trust in Christ.” It’s unlikely that Boehner, better known for his bar stool at the Capital Grille than his pew at church, would have delivered such a fiery oration. Abortion, gay marriage, and other divisive social issues may not be near to Boehner’s heart, say lobbyists who have worked with the Ohio Republican, but, they note, he is a politician beholden to party politics. And one lobbyist who worked in the office of a Republican with a large social-conservative constituency says that although Boehner will address such issues when politically expedient, no one expects him to give them the platform that DeLay did. In the Senate, things aren’t much brighter for social conservatives seeking a leader. Despite the presence of a handful of reliable favorites — most notably, Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — the majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), has never made social issues a true priority despite proclamations otherwise, lobbyists say. In a run-up to an expected 2008 presidential bid, Frist has laid claim to an ambitious 2006 agenda, but some on K Street consider his latest effort to woo social conservatives by fast-tracking their agenda a case of transparent pandering. “Frist is so lame about this stuff,” says another Republican lobbyist, who would not criticize the senator on the record. “It’s such obvious pandering, and it’s not done well.” This lobbyist wasn’t alone in asking for anonymity. No Republican lobbyists would speak on the record for this story, mindful of social conservatives’ storied vigilance. “They keep track of everything,” explains a self-identified social-conservative lobbyist. REACHING OUT But despite K Street’s misgivings about Boehner and Frist’s personal investment in social-conservative issues, both have pursued the constituency. Phil Burress, a social-conservative activist from Boehner’s hometown of Cincinnati who was instrumental in driving religious voters to the polls in Ohio during the 2004 election, says it’s nice to have a lawmaker “whom you don’t have to twist his arm and write letters to get him to do the right thing.” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a 16-million-member religious group, is also pleased with Boehner’s outreach. Boehner has sought out Land’s group on several occasions, personally telling the 59-year-old that he understands the importance of the marriage issue, noting its critical importance for Bush’s 2004 victory. But although Boehner expressed to Land his political commitment to the issues, he refrained from any discussions about his personal faith. And Land couldn’t help but speak wistfully of DeLay, his fellow Texan, whose commitment and word were never in doubt. “If we were concerned about something happening or being sacrificed in conference and DeLay would say, �I guarantee you it won’t happen,’ we could take it to the bank,” says Land. “His word was 24-karat gold.” Frist also has sought out and impressed social conservatives. He’s delivered on a crop of conservative Bush nominees to the federal courts and was the first senator to publicly declare his support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union, Land says. Additionally, conservative lawmakers in both houses have scored victories for evangelicals, delivering on a much-wished-for ban on late-term abortion along with introducing legislation requiring minors to receive parental consent before terminating their pregnancies. Other piecemeal legislation included strengthening broadcast-indecency standards and exempting gays from federal hate-crimes legislation. More can be done, says Land, who says that he’s “paid never to be satisfied.” This dissatisfaction manifests itself in many ways for social conservatives. The grass-roots base still packs a heavy punch, reminds Republican den mother Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum. Reference the current blowup over immigration, she says. Or just ask Harriet Miers, Bush’s choice for the U.S. Supreme Court whose scuttling was largely attributed to social-conservative outrage. But the strategy for social conservatives on the marriage issue is an incremental one, something that can be executed even without a vocal powerhouse such as DeLay, conservatives say. Political odds suggest that the marriage amendment will fail to win the necessary two-thirds support in both the House and Senate. Proponents of the ban, such as Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council, admit it’s an uphill battle, but one that provides conservatives with an educational barometer, helping them find out where lawmakers stand and allowing them to aggressively target the fence-sitters. As proof of this strategy, social conservatives say they have picked up four new Senate votes that they didn’t have in 2004 when the amendment was first introduced. Additionally, senators who were initially vague about their support, including Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), have more publicly embraced the issue. DeWine, who is up for re-election this fall, is now a co-sponsor of the newly renamed Marriage Protection Amendment. Though Mike Dawson, a DeWine spokesman, says that his boss has always been a supporter of the federal amendment, Burress and his tribe say they were unaware of the senator’s exact position in 2004 until the day the Senate first voted on the amendment. DeWine eventually voted for its adoption, but this year marks the first time he’s taken a leadership role on the issue. Additionally, DeWine was opposed to the 2004 Ohio state amendment to ban same-sex unions, which proved to be a significant vehicle for drawing conservatives to the polls in the Buckeye State. DeWine’s public opposition to the state amendment and his weaving attitudes on the federal measure became a source of anxiety for many social conservatives. Burress remembers when DeWine wouldn’t converse with him. Now the leader of Citizens for Community Values proudly boasts a “DeWine for Senate” sign in his front yard. “He wouldn’t call us, wouldn’t talk to us, but we can’t be bought or sold,” says Burress of DeWine, who he felt was being disingenuous with the social-conservative community. “We don’t play the games they play in Washington where you trade issues or negotiate. We will not put marriage on the altar of political correctness.” And the social-conservative influence is being felt in the hotly contested Pennsylvania Senate race between Santorum and State Treasurer Robert Casey (D). G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., says that although his center’s polls show Casey receiving 65-70 percent support from voters who identify themselves as pro-choice, significant for a Democratic candidate self-identified as pro-life, social conservatives who vote Republican are firmly behind Santorum. Though the center has not conducted polling on gay marriage, the issue is likely to be, once again, an election boogeyman: The Pennsylvania Legislature is considering an amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The measure won’t be on the ballot this year, but state lawmakers up for re-election will. The strategy, as one social conservative puts it, is to turn out proponents of the amendment to cast their votes in favor of friendly lawmakers. While they are there, why not vote for Santorum, who, unlike Casey, supports the federal marriage amendment? “It’s not germane to the Senate race, but it catalyzes this whole notion of marriage protection in 2006 and moves it further to the top of the agenda,” says Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative Pennsylvania grass-roots group. POLL POSITIONS Since the social-conservative movement gained steam in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its story has always been told less in terms of Washington politicking and more in terms of the votes it delivers on Election Day. “They took a lot of credit for Republicans winning back control of the House and Senate” in 1994, says one lobbyist who calls himself a social conservative. That stream of values voters, which mushroomed throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, eventually became one of the most reliable foundations of the Republican base. But the new bloc of voters didn’t come without a cost. “There is some evidence that [intraparty] fissures are becoming wider. For a while, [traditional Republicans] put up with [social conservatives], but now they’re less willing to put up with it,” says John Green, a professor at Ohio’s University of Akron who studies the conservative movement. “On the other hand, elections have been pretty close recently . . . so in some ways, the Republican base is more important than in the past,” he says. Those watching the run-up to the fall elections are wondering if this could be a replay of the 1994 midterm elections, not only because it could shift control of Congress, but also because the elections could spell the undoing of the coalition of fiscal, small-government, and social conservatives built during the Republican revolution. Though few envision social conservatives defecting from the Republican Party, their engagement in the fall elections remains up in the air. “That’s one of the reasons that Republicans trot out issues like the [marriage amendment],” says Green. “They need to keep them interested. They’re not going to go over and vote for Democrats.” Beyond legislative victories, social conservatives will be watching to see if anyone can herd the now-leaderless flock on Capitol Hill. “Doctors are used to talking to patients and nurses, but Tom came up as a small-business man trying to get rid of pests,” says Schlafly, alluding to DeLay’s previous career as an exterminator. “We are looking for a leader. No one is really stepping into his shoes.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected]. Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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