Tuesday, June 20, 2000

GOP puts off abortion discussion

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTON, Ohio — Republican Party leaders from all over the country gathered Monday to begin chiseling out a party platform that will likely reflect presidential nominee George W. Bush's views on hot-button issues like Social Security, Medicare and education.

        But at Monday's hearing at Sinclair Community College, the Republican National Committee (RNC) chose not to push the hottest button of them all — abortion.

        High-profile Republicans from U.S. Rep. Rob Portman of Terrace Park to Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee to longtime TV star Art Linkletter held forth for nearly eight hours Monday, testifying before an RNC platform committee panel headed by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson on GOP plans to fix Social Security, improve Medicare and return control of children's education to parents. Advocates and op ponents of abortion rights were left to protest on the outside of the school auditorium.

        “We are going to deal with the issue, just not here,” Mr. Thompson said in a break in the daylong hearing, the first of two the RNC will hold before adopting a platform at the GOP convention in Philadelphia five weeks from now.

        For 20 years, GOP presidential candidates have run on a party platform with a strong anti-abortion plank, one that calls for a constitu tional amendment banning abortion and makes no exceptions in its opposition to abortion in cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother.

        It has been a contentious issue inside the party in recent election cycles, with abortion-rights advocates calling for the party to drop the “right-to-life” plank and be neutral on the issue.

        “All we are asking is that it be taken off the table and

        we accept the fact that there is disagreement in the party over the issues,” said Lynn Grefe, director of the New York-based Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, as she sat outside the Sinclair building where the RNC hearing was held.

        Monday afternoon, about 30 members of Ohio Right to Life from all over the state gathered on Perry Street in downtown Dayton, outside the meeting hall, to urge RNC officials to keep the language in the platform.

        “We know they are not going to let us speak in the hearing, but we want them to know that the mainstream view in the Republican Party is pro-life and that the language should stay,” said Tanya Lee, political director of Ohio Right to Life.

        If the abortion language is unchanged in Philadelphia, it will go further than Mr. Bush, the presumptive nominee, has gone on the issue. He is “pro-life,” but makes exceptions for rape and incest.

        The issue is unlikely to be raised at the second of two RNC platform hearings, to be held next week in Billings, Mont. But Mr. Thompson, tapped by Mr. Bush to oversee writing of the party platform, said he plans to meet privately with people on both sides of the issue.

        In the end, Mr. Thompson said that while there may be a fight at the convention over the abortion plank, “I doubt very much if (the abortion language) is going to be changed.”

        While supporters and opponents of abortion made their points outside, most of the 17 witnesses who spoke to the platform committee expressed views that closely mirrored the plans Mr. Bush has already put forward on issues such as Social Security reform and education.

        Mr. Portman promoted the Bush plan to allow American workers to voluntarily put a portion of their payroll tax for Social Security into a personal retirement account, with investments in “historically safe” assets that they would manage.

        “If nothing is done to address the coming insolvency of the Social Security system, there will be only two alternatives — raising the payroll tax by 16 percent or cutting benefits by 14 percent,” Mr. Portman said. “Neither is acceptable.”

        The Terrace Park Republican also said the party's platform should include a call for lifting restrictions on the amount American workers can contribute to 401(k) savings plans and IRAs.

        Mr. Linkletter, an 88-year-old who spent more than 60 years in radio and television, was in Dayton representing the United Seniors Association, a pro-senior lobbying group.

        His organization, Mr. Linkletter said, would like to see the Medicare system reformed “so it would look like the plan that federal employees have — where there is complete and comprehensive coverage, and a plan that does away with unnecessary regulations and red tape.”

        In a morning session on education, a series of panelists endorsed two of the mainstays of the Bush education proposals — more parental choice through vouchers and charter schools and an emphasis on making schools accountable for the education they are giving children.

        Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, a Cincinnati native, said his state — where George W. Bush's brother Jeb is governor — has instituted a program of grading public schools on an A through F scale.

        If a child is in a school with a D or F grade for two semesters, he or she can transfer to a better public school or a private school through use of an “opportunity scholarship” — a school voucher.

        Lisa Graham Keegan, superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, echoed a Bush campaign theme when she said that testing for students should apply to all students, regardless of economic background.

        One of the few Daytonians invited to speak to the RNC panel was Anne Higdon, president of Improved Solutions for Urban Systems, a charter school that trains students who have had severe disciplinary and criminal problems in public schools, for construction industry jobs. Ms. Higdon said she has contracted with Cincinnati Public Schools to open a similar charter school in Cincinnati next year.

        Accompanied by six of her students — all of whom failed in Dayton's public school system — she said her school's success “shows what can be done when there is a choice.”

        “The young people who chose our school would not have had a chance to make it. But now they are somewhere they want to be.”


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