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Growing Pains

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The Senate fight over filibustering President Bush's judicial nominations and, before that, the congressional intervention in the Terry Schiavo case expose a large and growing rift between the "sacred" and "secular" factions of the Republican Party. The "seculars" are primarily concerned about how government affects business. The "sacreds," while they may well have opinions on economic and business issues, think that government should and must play a role in outlawing abortion, banning gay marriages, and generally holding the line against what they see as immoral behavior.

The sacreds see an intersection between faith and public policy; the seculars want a Chinese wall, a clear separation between church and state.

While the seculars may be sympathetic to the Bush administration's efforts to appoint additional conservatives to the federal bench, particularly if that leads to a crackdown on what the seculars consider lawsuit abuse, they do not see the fight over judicial nominations as a justification for pulling the "nuclear" trigger and paralyzing the Senate. The seculars see greater value in passing the highway bill, the energy bill, and other traditional legislation that Public Strategies lobbyist Billy Moore describes as sitting precariously "on the nuclear bubble."

In contrast, the sacreds see the nuclear option -- which would bar filibusters against judicial nominees -- as a chance to break the nomination logjam and also to break Senate Democrats of their obstructionist habits. The sacreds think that it would be worth a virtual shutdown of the Senate to establish once and for all that the GOP is in full control of that chamber.

The Schiavo case also highlighted the fracture within the GOP. While the sacreds saw the federal government's intervention as an attempt to save a human life, the seculars were appalled that Congress and the president would rush back to town to intervene in a state judicial matter -- especially at a time when the federal budget and trade deficits are at record highs, Medicare and Social Security are heading toward insolvency, Medicaid is almost bankrupting states, and gasoline prices are sky-high. Seculars viewed lawmakers' jumping in to give federal courts jurisdiction in the Schiavo case as a distressing misplacement of priorities. Sacreds cheered Congress and the president for "promoting the culture of life."

Secular "country-club" Republicans are simply cut from a very different cloth than socially conservative, evangelical Republicans. The two factions have different priorities and different worldviews. As long as Democrats controlled the White House, Congress, or both, Republicans were united in opposition. However, with Republicans in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the GOP must establish its priorities, particularly because the president will come to be seen as a lame duck at some point. But the party's split has become harder to gloss over, its disagreements harder to keep under control.

All Republican members of Congress will be pressured to choose sides or, more accurately, to establish priorities that risk alienating one faction or the other. But the Republican lawmakers who want to run for president in 2008 will be the politicians most affected by the split in the GOP. Expect to keep seeing would-be presidential candidates positioning themselves in ways that show they are very mindful of the divide.

Although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani comes out on top when Republicans nationwide are polled about 2008, his positions on abortion, gun control, and gay rights make him essentially incapable of winning the GOP nomination. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who runs second in national polls of GOP voters, would likely inherit Giuliani's supporters and establish himself as the anointed secular presidential candidate.

Who is in line to become the favorite of the sacred faction? It's easy to see Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in that role.

Then there are the fence-straddlers -- candidates who are attempting to plant one foot on each side and to draw support from both. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is certainly trying to do this, although rather crudely. Already, insiders are betting that Sen. George Allen of Virginia is more likely to succeed in becoming the bridge candidate.

The Republican divide between the sacreds and seculars is an example of the kind of growing pains that a party inevitably suffers when it takes control. The rift is predictable, but that doesn't make it any less painful for the party faithful.

 
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