Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The GOP Mod Squad

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The GOP Mod Squad

Article excerpt

Will Republican moderates back-burner gay issues while they wrestle with conservatives for control?

Since the GOP took over Congress beginning in 1995, many centrist, "moderate" Republicans have been biding their time.

While the conservative wing and its bombastic spokesmen, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, have often grabbed the spotlight, the even-tempered and conciliatory moderates have worked to mitigate the party's harsh public image. It hasn't been easy amid government shutdowns; partisan wars over health care, education, and the environment; endless intraparty disagreements over abortion and gay rights; and, of course, the impeachment and trial of President Clinton.

But after squeaking through the November general elections, which saw the GOP majority in the House drop to six seats, Republicans of all shapes and sizes are trying to stay focused on winning in 2000. And moderates think now is the time to step out of their colleagues' shadows and bring the party--drag it, if necessary--back to the political center.

"People on the outside support us," says Rep. Arno Houghton of New York, a leader of the House mod squad. "The mood of the country is such that this is the right time to get things done."

Galvanized by polls showing that Americans value bipartisan accomplishments over political demagoguery, GOP moderates seem more focused and pumped up than in years past. But it is still unclear what a higher-profile bloc of centrist Republicans means for gay rights, at least this early in the two-year congressional calendar, and the reasons are numerous.

For instance, while Houghton and his allies are quick to talk about where they would like to take the party on issues like Social Security, the environment, or tax cuts, they are not so unified on how far they should stick their necks out on gay issues. "I'm still from Missouri on that," admits Houghton, acknowledging his own reservations about a federal hate-crimes bill.

Indeed, although moderates were vital last summer in rebuffing Colorado Republican representative Joel Hefley's amendment that would have reversed Clinton's order banning discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees and publicly denounced Senate majority leader Trent Lott when he compared homosexuality to kleptomania and alcoholism, many of them have not yet made pro-gay bills a political priority.

"There is general agreement and understanding [among moderates] that discrimination against gays and lesbians is wrong, that we should live freely without fear" of harassment and violence, says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the gay lobbying group Human Rights Campaign. "And while they understand the issues, there is not unanimity on how they feel, and that's the challenge that we at HRC are grappling with."

The gap between those who get it and those who almost or are about to get it keeps gay fights from jumping to the forefront of the moderate wish list. Also, national polls show that most Americans, though generally supportive of gay rights, would rather see Congress spend its time on what they consider more critical issues.

"At this point it's just not at the top of our agenda, like abortion and gun control," says John "Jock" McKernan, a former Republican governor of Maine and now chairman of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a policy group trying to build party unity around mainstream ideas and goals. …

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