TALLAHASSEE -- While the GOP on the national level discusses whether it needs to change its messaging to appeal to a broader base, Republicans in the Florida House are clearly sticking with a conservative social agenda.
They voted to send a message to Congress and President Barack Obama to keep their hands off citizens' guns in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings. In addition, the House is considering a bill that would allow guns in schools. It already has sent the Senate three bills aimed at protecting fetuses, along with another that would speed up the death penalty.
Then there's the bill the chamber passed to banShariah, or Islamic law, and other foreign laws from being applied in state courts, though there's no evidence judges have used foreign law against Floridians.
"We don't need to change our principles; we do need to communicate that there is compassionate reason for some of the things that we do and why we hold to those principles," Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said. "Principles are the foundation upon which you build, and that's a pragmatic choice to have the right foundation in place. That's what value issues are all about."
Democrats say the focus on conservative social issues in the House distracts from more serious and immediate issues facing the state, such as the economy and unemployment.
"The challenge back to our Republican colleagues is to say, `Look, what does this do to advance the dialogue of making Florida better?"' said Rep. Alan Williams. "I don't think it does a whole lot. Right now we should be focused on how do we come out of this recession as a stronger, better Florida."
Williams, D-Tallahassee, said the conservative agenda doesn't reflect the state's moderate makeup or the message voters sent by backing Obama in the past two elections.
"I understand that they feel that they have to stick to their conservative core values, but Florida is a very moderate state," Williams said. "We miss the mark when we focus on bills like speeding up the death penalty, when we focus on a lot of the abortion issues, when we don't expand Medicaid."
House Democrats did join Republicans on one abortion bill sent to the Senate. The measure (HB 1129) would require medical care for newborns surviving botched abortions.
There was a partisan split, though, on two other bills involving the protection of the unborn. One (HB 845) would ban abortions based on the sex or race of the fetus. The other (HB 759) would broadly expand the situations when a crime against an expectant mother leads to separate charges for harming the unborn child. The legislation would apply to fetuses at any point in gestational development.
House Republicans also have voted in favor of what's called a memorial that sends a message to Obama and Congress that they want gun rights protected. Another bill (1097) would let principals and superintendents designate who could carry guns in schools. Democrats have opposed the measure at its committee stops.
Representatives from both parties agreed on a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Barbara Watson that seeks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Several other gun measures sponsored by Democrats have gone nowhere.
The issue of banning foreign law from being applied in state courts has been a popular one with tea party supporters, but Democrats argued there's no need for it since no one could come up with a case in which someone's rights were violated by the application of foreign law.
It's a prime example of how the conservative agenda distracts from other issues, said Democratic Rep. Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach.
"That's just pulling out issues that don't need to be debated here in the Florida House," Gibbons said. "Why are we having tea party rallies in the Florida House?"
He said the debate should instead be about jobs, education and health care.