Economic woes can’t push social issues off the table in Congress

WASHINGTON–The public’s top worry is the economy, as registered in recent opinion polls and at the ballot box last fall. But divisive social issues have taken center stage in Washington in recent weeks.

House Republicans are gearing up for a pitched battle over expanded abortion restrictions. Congressional Democrats are pushing for new gun control measures. All that’s missing from this panoply of wedge issues is a fresh fight over gay marriage, and that could be in the offing, too.

Of course, pocketbook issues will not be ignored in the 112th Congress.

The economy will be a major focus of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. And Republicans have already begun laying the groundwork for a pitched battle over federal spending, part of what they call their “cut-and-grow” strategy of attacking the federal deficit and spurring the economy.

But dicey social questions have emerged quickly in this still-nascent legislative session, and they promise to remain front-and-center in the coming weeks.

The Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson put gun control back on the agenda, with Democrats like Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, calling for tougher firearms regulations.

Himes is among the nearly 60 Democrats who have cosponsored a bill, introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, to ban high-capacity ammunition clips, like the one the used in the Arizona shooting that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The legislation would restore an expired prohibition on gun clips with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, which Himes and other proponents say have no legitimate use outside law enforcement and the military.

“In the wake of the Tucson shooting, I realized that we should try again to change the tone of the debate against guns,” Himes said, noting that the alleged Arizona gunman had a 31-round ammunition clip and “was only subdued when he stopped to reload.”

McCarthy’s bill, Himes said, “struck me as a good first step in trying to fashion a sane compromise.” A Senate version of the bill is expected to be introduced in the coming days.

Other Connecticut Democrats have not taken a position on McCarthy’s proposal, but say they hope the recent shooting will lead to some new restrictions.

“From this tragedy, we think a number of good things will come forward,” Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said recently, without commenting on any specific proposals that have been introduced.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he would like to see a new focus on making it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase guns.

“We have a system outside of the criminal courts where people who are mentally ill are adjudicated through the probate courts or other civil courts and we still allow people like that to buy guns,” Courtney said. “That’s the area we really should move quickly on.”

But even with the Arizona incident as a backdrop, the road for any new gun restrictions remains uphill. House Republican leaders, for example, quickly voiced opposition to one proposal offered from within their own ranks-a call from Rep. Peter King, R-New York, to make it illegal to bring a gun within 1,000 feet of certain federal officials, such as members of Congress. (King has said he’ll press forward with the measure despite resistance from GOP leaders.)

GOP leaders are instead eager to debate another volatile social issue. Last week, two leading Republicans introduced abortion-related bills.

One, by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., would make permanent a current ban on federal funding for abortion, known as the Hyde amendment, which now has to be renewed annually.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it one of the GOP’s “highest legislative priorities” and signaled the House will move quickly to take up the measure.

A second proposal to ban any federal funding for abortion under the health care reform overhaul is also likely to get fast-tracked. Republicans say the health reform law is too lax on this question, while backers of the reform law say it already bars federal money for abortions.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, suggested Congress should not spend too much time on these questions.

“I don’t want to minimize the importance of standing up to attacks on a woman’s right to choose, or the clear need to tighten our gun control laws,” said Murphy, who last week announced he will run for the Senate in 2012. “But in Connecticut, most people want to know what we are doing to create jobs and fix this economy.  So that’s where my focus is.”

But political experts say it’s no big surprise these hot-button topics have edged back onto the agenda, given the already-looming 2012 elections.

“Parties always have to attend to the needs and desires of their base, even if there’s a conflict with the needs and the desires of a larger electorate,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “Frankly managing through that minefield is a key to whether you continue to win elections. And we’re seeing this play out in a couple of ways with now.”

Still, he said neither effort is likely to get much traction, and there are risks on both sides to taking up such politically tricky issues.

Republicans won “because the Democrats did not focus relentlessly and mono-maniacally on jobs, jobs and jobs,” Ornstein said. “And now they are not focusing mono-manically on jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Himes agreed that the debate in Washington needs to quickly zoom in on the economy.

“All of us would be making a significant error if we didn’t start to focus in on what we know to be the chief issue in peoples’ minds,” he said.