House Republican leaders yesterday sought to invigorate their conservative base with election-year legislation aimed at protecting both the religious freedom of municipalities and a parent's role in a minor's abortion decision.
The House passed a revised parental-notification bill and legislation limiting legal damages against cities and towns that lose lawsuits for violating the Constitution's ban on the establishment of religion.
"They help our members back home," a House Republican leadership aide said of the two bills. "Some of our members have constituents in their districts who really want this legislation."
The parental-notification bill, approved 264-153, would establish fines or up to a year in prison for anyone who knowingly skirts a state's parental-notification or parental-consent law by taking a pregnant minor to another state to have an abortion.
Both chambers approved different versions of the bill earlier this year, but Senate Democrats have blocked the final negotiations, seeking, among other things, changes to limit the notification rights of fathers who rape their daughters.
It was not clear yesterday whether the Senate would act on the bill this week, but if it does, the bill would likely pass and could then go on to President Bush, supporters said.
The House also approved, on a 244-173 vote, another element of the Republican "American Values Agenda" -- the Public Expression of Religion Act, which would deny legal fees to groups who win lawsuits against cities or towns found to have violated separation of church and state.
Supporters said municipalities currently feel pressured to remove public displays of religion such as monuments of the Ten Commandments from city halls because they would need to spend "millions" in taxpayer dollars to defend themselves.
If the Public Expression of Religion Act were to become law, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union would be barred from receiving legal fees if they prevail in a court battle.
"It would be a win for those that understand our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican.
The ACLU said it would discourage enforcement of the religious element of the Bill of Rights.
"This legislation would in fact weaken the very freedom they claim to be protecting," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
Meanwhile, Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said the Election Day motivation of the Republican base is "mixed" right now, and it would help if Congress were to approve these two bills.
He said it would also help if language being negotiated in the defense authorization bill would allow military chaplains to publicly pray as they see fit, including using Jesus' name.
"They help with the base," he said of the bills. "It helps them to know Congress is caring about the issues they care about."
Democrats said Republicans are rightfully scared that they'll lose their majority in November, but added their efforts are too little too late.
"It's not going to work. They're looking for a lifesaver," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.
He said that, unlike a few years ago, Republicans now face a public that's unhappy about the Iraq war, the handling of Hurricane Katrina and a large budget deficit. "If saying that you appreciate religion is going to turn that around, I'd like to see it," he said.
The parental-notification bill approved by the House yesterday differs from the Senate version because it would require the doctor performing the abortion to contact at least one of the girl's parents if the minor is from out of state.
To accommodate the Senate, House leaders also added a Senate provision, backed by Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, clarifying that a father who rapes his underage daughter couldn't sue someone who transports her out of state for an abortion. And if that father transports her, he would be subject to the bill's penalties.