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Wis. Republicans already veering into social issues

Leaders of the new Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature are quietly twisting arms to try to get their members to focus solely on measures to create jobs and boost the economy when they assume power in two months.

But some Republicans, whose attempts to act on social issues failed under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle the past eight years, say they intend to press ahead to legalize concealed weapons, pass tough new immigration restrictions, and eliminate domestic partner benefits and the state’s domestic partner registry.

The different perspectives and priorities are starting to emerge as the party transitions from its triumphant midterm election campaign, in which it won the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, to the much different challenge of turning ideas into laws.

Already, the Republicans are facing competing pressures over whether to try to have a wide-ranging impact or to pursue a more cautious and limited agenda.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, has been pressing members in private calls to focus on the economic legislation and put off everything else.

“I’m a little nervous” about the talk about abortion legislation and other issues, said Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, a 20-year veteran of the Assembly. “I’m going to do what I can to try to keep us focused.”

Newly elected state Rep. Kathy Bernier, a Republican from Lake Hallie who received a call from Suder, said she was also a “little bit” worried about the other issues that were prominent in the campaign.

Republican leaders believe they have strong base of support for action on the economy. A survey by St. Norbert College showed that 73 percent of respondents said jobs, economy, budget and debt were the most important issues facing the state. Only 2 percent named immigration and just 1 percent said abortion.

Incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker has called for quick passage of proposals to spur job creation, including cutting taxes on small businesses, cutting taxes on Health Savings Accounts and reforming the state Department of Commerce.

But the GOP includes fervent and loyal social conservatives who helped deliver the party’s dramatic victory in November and now expect action on issues that have already passed in other Republican-controlled states.

Republican state Rep. Don Pridemore said he plans on introducing a bill similar to the controversial new law in Arizona that would crack down on illegal immigration. Pridemore’s bill would require that people suspected of crimes would have to prove they’re in the country legally or be turned over to federal immigration authorities.

The idea has been denounced by immigrant-rights groups and would prompt a legislative battle. But Pridemore said the bill could be debated without becoming a distraction.

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, who will be majority leader in January, declared on election night that the first bill he intends to see passed would require voters to show photo identification at the polls as a way to stop voter fraud. Democrats have long blocked it, arguing it suppresses turnout. Other Republican lawmakers have said they intend to impose more restrictions on abortions, legalize concealed weapons and repeal a recently enacted law that extends benefits to domestic partners of gay state workers..

It will only be a few months before the Legislature turns to non-economic issues, said Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend.

“We’re not going to spend the next 18 months doing nothing but economic issues,” Grothman said. “That would be a slap in the face to a large share of the electorate.”

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican who served 14 years, said navigating the agenda will be precarious unless the Legislature successfully enacts a substantial new economic program.

“If they can’t deliver there will be hell to pay in 2012,” he said before the election.

Kaufert said he also feared voters would have little patience if his colleagues get bogged down.

“The danger is the citizens of the state will just say we’ll clean house again and we’re going to keep doing it until we get it right,” he said.

Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said the economy won’t prevent the Legislature from acting on other priorities. “It doesn’t mean we have to exclude tackling every other issue facing the voters of Wisconsin,” he said. “You can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Democrats are encouraged by the prospect of Republicans getting entangled in social issues that are highly contentious and have less public support.

The Republican focus on jobs and the economy will last “about 20 seconds,” said Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state lawmaker and currently a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor.

“They ran on jobs and the economy,” said Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison. “Now if we get a bait and switch to a social issues agenda, that would not be a very popular move.”

Walker, who ran with Tea Party support, promised on the campaign trail to sign an Arizona-style immigration law and to ban embryonic stem cell research, groundbreaking work that was pioneered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since the election, Walker’s rhetoric has focused on his pledge that with Republicans back in control, “Wisconsin is open for business.” His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said Walker will review bills not related to the economy on a case by case basis, but his focus remains on his jobs agenda.

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