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HOW HE SEES IT Conservatives will face obstacles

Published: Mon, January 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Political conservatives have their best opportunity in years to push successfully for changes to taxes, entitlements and the courts -- but they face a special set of obstacles.
"If we don't get it done now, we may never get it done," said Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group. Citing former leaders of the Democratic Party, Moore said, "There's no more blaming Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and Bill Clinton."
With President Bush elected to a second term and Republicans strengthening their control in both the House and Senate, the GOP appears well-positioned to push for changes conservatives have sought for a decade or more.
Fiscal conservatives say they're eager to see the federal tax system overhauled, permanent tax cuts and Social Security revamped to allow private accounts for investment.
Gay marriage
Social conservatives want to push for a federal ban on gay marriage, new restrictions on abortion and rollbacks of laws limiting a church's participation in politics.
They all agree on one priority.
"The Supreme Court trumps everything for conservatives," said Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute. "The shape of the court has the most long-term effects."
The president, whose nominees are likely to be young and conservative, will probably get one or more openings to fill on the Supreme Court during his second term. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is seriously ill with thyroid cancer, and all the justices on the Supreme Court except Clarence Thomas are over age 65.
The Christian Coalition placed confirming Bush nominees for judgeships -- and especially the Supreme Court -- high on its list of priorities.
"It's very important that the president gets his choices for judges confirmed," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. "Judges are supposed to interpret the law, not legislate."
Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime conservative activist, said simply, "We want a pro-life nominee."
Senate Democrats have consistently voted to block judicial nominees they find objectionable, said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "There's substantial evidence that was politically costly this year," he said.
In the meantime, Johnson wants Congress to pass legislation that would make it a federal offense to take minors across state lines to get an abortion -- that and other measures aimed at curbing abortions.
Yet the path for the GOP and its conservative allies is not clear of potential barriers:
UThe president's job approval rating is hovering around 50 percent, a level that could keep Republican members of Congress on edge as they tackle high-risk projects.
UGOP members of Congress will be wary about voters' tendency to cast ballots in midterm elections against lawmakers from the party holding the White House.
USome Republicans will be skittish about supporting broad proposals without knowing more specifics.
UOpposition groups and their Democratic allies in Congress are likely to fight harder than ever to block changes in entitlement programs and the courts.
Conservatives are happy that Bush is pushing for changes to Social Security, the income tax system and the limits on damage lawsuits, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. Along with many other conservatives, Keene wants more restraint in spending.
"Like a lot of presidents during wartime, the president wasn't minding the store on domestic spending," said Keene.
Traditional conservatives acknowledge mixed feelings about the Iraq war, which has been strongly supported by the "neoconservatives" who prefer an aggressive foreign policy.
"Going after Saddam Hussein was justifiable," Keene said. "But staying around in Baghdad to create a little America is questionable."
X Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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