Social Issue Headaches Continue for House GOP

A commemorative-coin bill is the latest example of legislation that gets pulled or delayed to avoid dividing the party.

Six months into the 114th Congress, Speaker John Boehner has made his strategy clear: He won't bring contentious social issues to the House floor if they're going to divide his conference, even if it means taking flack from the public and elements within his party.

When moderates and GOP women criticized a late-term-abortion bill, the leadership pulled it from the floor until compromise language could be drafted, despite conservatives urging a vote. When Democrats attached provisions barring the display of the Confederate flag in federal cemeteries to an Interior spending bill, leaders pulled that measure too and—at least for now—have stalled the entire appropriations process until it can be resolved.

On Tuesday, leaders delayed a commemorative-coin bill that would fund Susan G. Komen for the Cure over conservative outrage that the breast-cancer organization is allied with the abortion-rights group Planned Parenthood. And Boehner and his team have no plans to bring a religious-freedom bill to the floor in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision granting marriage rights to gay couples, despite its endorsement by conservative groups and more than 100 cosponsors, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

The bills have been held up for different and nuanced reasons, but there is a common thread: Taken together, they illustrate the ongoing difficulty of managing and anticipating problems in such a geographically and ideologically diverse conference, particularly when it comes to social issues.

"Members of our conference have a range of opinions on important issues—that's what makes us strong, active, and representative of most Americans," Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger said. "This year, we've already reached consensus regularly on a long list of legislative priorities, whether it's economic, national security, or other key priorities, including on social issues."

It is the social issues that have tripped up the party most often, however. And that comes as the country heads into a presidential-election year during which many Republicans believe the party will need to reach out to a broader base of voters.

Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate member who is often critical of leadership for bringing social issues to a vote, said leadership should be reaching out to a wider electorate and these types of votes do not help. He said recent comments from presidential contender Donald Trump alienated Hispanics, the Confederate flag flap last week alienated African-Americans, and pursuing an overly broad response to the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling would alienate gay-rights voters.

"Many Members of Congress find political safety by supporting issues that mollify the base but do not necessarily help us in a presidential election. That's part of the problem. Many members come from very safe districts," Dent said. "Leadership's job is to lead, and particularly as we move into a presidential-election year, I can't suspect that many serious Republican presidential candidates want us to jump into this briar patch."

Still, as Dent noted, there are a significant number of House Republicans who do want to vote continuously on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Rep. John Fleming, one of those members, said he and others have pushed leadership to move on the religious-freedom bill, but were told to find more cosponsors first.

Fleming said he believes leadership is reticent to move quickly on these kinds of issues in part because Democrats pounce on the party and accuse them of being discriminatory and out of touch. He pointed to Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence faced national backlash earlier this year for signing a religious-freedom bill.

"People will attempt to say it's discrimination," Fleming said. "We've seen what happened in Indiana and places like that, and so political courage is not very high among the Republican Party."

Despite the messaging, leaders have been able to smooth over concerns in at least some cases. The late-term abortion bill was salvaged when language protecting victims of rape was added to assuage women's concerns. And leaders are hoping to bring back the commemorative-coin bill in a way that excludes groups that are involved in abortion.

But other issues are not as inherently solvable. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers estimated that some 100 Republicans would have voted against his Interior spending bill had it moved forward with an amendment banning the Confederate flag in national cemeteries. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy met with civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis last week, but it remains unclear how the parties reconcile the desire of some Republicans to protect the rights of their constituents to adorn graves with the Confederate flag with the desire of Democrats to entirely banish what they see as a symbol of hatred and racism.

Rep. Curt Clawson was the only Republican to vote with Democrats last week on the Confederate flag issue. He said his vote was informed by his time playing college basketball with African-Americans, in addition to his other friends and family members of color.

"If we want to get those kinds of folks in the next election we have to show that we're not afraid of social topics and racial topics," Clawson said. "Will there be tough days when we finally decide to cross the Rubicon? Of course. But the sooner we do it, the quicker we get it behind us, and it shows that we are a more welcoming party."

This article has been updated.