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Making a pledge

Politics | House GOP leaders make a public promise to limit government if they return to power as both parties scramble toward November

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

STERLING, Va.-Hoping to go back to the future, congressional Republicans on Sept. 23 rolled out their legislative agenda six weeks ahead of this November's mid-term elections. Today's GOP is hoping to repeat the election success of its 1994 forebears. That crop of Republican leaders won the House for the first time in four decades, gaining 54 House seats after promoting a "Contract with America" on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

This time conservative lawmakers unveiled "A Pledge to America" in front of a suburban Virginia hardware store. The backdrop was appropriate because Republican lawmakers have work to do in dropping their "party of no" moniker. More successful the last two years in blocking parts of the Democratic agenda then touting their own ideas, Republicans must assure voters that they will not return to the free-spending ways they showed while leading Congress. Even as Democrats continue to get bad marks in the polls, voters haven't given Republicans passing grades either.

At the Tart Lumber Company in Sterling, Va., Republicans said they based their new priorities on voter feedback gathered at town hall meetings and through the party's America Speaking Out social networking website. Not surprisingly, economic issues topped all concerns from the more than 160,000 ideas and 1 million comments gathered by the project.

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The plan hits on five broad areas of concern: jobs, spending, congressional reform, healthcare, and national security.

Proposals include nods to the Tea Party's focus on constitutional government: a requirement that bills include a certification of constitutional legitimacy and that legislation be available for examination by the public at least three days before any congressional vote. Republicans also pledge to hold weekly floor votes on eliminating programs that online voters choose for the chopping block in the GOP's "YouCut" program.

Many of the proposals aren't new, such as permanently extending all the 2001 Bush tax cuts and attacking healthcare costs by both enacting medical liability reform and allowing for the purchase of insurance policies across state lines.

An internal debate focused on how prominent a place to give social issues. In the feedback gathered, voters listed "life" as their third concern after spending and jobs. The document briefly affirms a pledge to honor traditional marriage and to oppose taxpayer-funded abortions, but the bulk of its details are devoted to the economy and the federal budget.

After making his "Pledge to America," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio walked across the street to mingle with the flag-waving crowd that had gathered to chant "stop the spending now" outside this Virginia hardware store. When presented with a metal teapot, Boehner said he would keep it as a souvenir. "I hope it's a lucky charm," said 52-year-old Ken Reid of Leesburg, Va.

The crowd was pleased with the pledge, chanting "Thank you, Speaker Boehner" as Boehner left to return to Washington. Robin Lillis, 48, of Ashburn, Va., said this is the most eager she has been about voting since she supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 as an 18-year-old: "I'm so excited about the opportunity to be heard again."

Socially secure

While social issues may not be driving the ballot this cycle, they are still playing prominent roles in Congress. Senate Republicans on Sept. 21 blocked the political left's push to impose on the military open homosexuality and taxpayer-funded abortions.

In an effort to energize their liberal voting base, Senate Democrats tacked those controversial priorities onto a bill authorizing $726 billion in defense spending. Those included a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy barring gays from openly serving in the military and an amendment allowing military facilities to perform abortions at taxpayers' expense.

But every Republican and two Arkansas Democrats, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, voted to defeat a procedural vote to begin debate on the measure.

"Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks," said Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who has long been counted as a supporter of the DADT repeal. But in withholding her support, Collins may have been looking ahead to her own reelection in 2014. Despite winning more than 61 percent of the vote in 2008, Collins has likely noted that conservative candidates have toppled many of her moderate Republican colleagues.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats pressed ahead on these provisions despite military opposition. More than 200 military physicians signed a letter to Congress opposing the abortion provision, while 66 top-ranked retired chaplains singed a letter against the repeal of DADT.

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