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GOP LEADERS WARMING TO CHRISTIAN AGENDA

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In a display of the religious right's clout, Republican leaders embraced a Christian Coalition agenda Wednesday calling for measures allowing prayer at public events and restricting abortion and pornography.

The Christian Coalition blueprint, patterned as a follow-up to the House GOP's "Contract With America," also includes several items already part of the budget debate, from eliminating the Education Department and federal programs for the arts and humanities to granting families $500-per-child tax credits.Given the popularity of those proposals within GOP ranks, the coalition appears certain to see some items in its "Contract With the American Family" enacted. But many of the others are quite controversial, setting the stage for a test of whether the eagerness of GOP leaders to embrace the Christian Coalition's goals will diminish once the debate turns to the specifics.

For example, the organization called for repeal of a Clinton administration policy requiring states to use Medicaid funds to pay for abortions. And it advocated restrictions on late-term abortions, including a ban on those in which forceps are used to remove the fetus from the uterus.

The Christian Coalition also called for halting federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that perform abortions or abortion counseling in the United States or in foreign aid programs.

"Our purpose is not to legislate family values," said Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed. "It is to ensure that Washington values families." He said the organization would spend as much as $2 million on ads, mail-ings and other efforts to drum up support.

The coalition is led by Pat Robertson and was a spinoff of the religious broadcaster's 1988 pres-i-den-tial campaign. Its membership has surpassed the 1.5 million mark, and the organization has become a force in most state Republican parties. It was a critical factor in the GOP's 1994 election sweep.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, among a dozen members of Congress who dropped by the organization's event, said Republicans were "committed to keeping our faith" with those voters. Gingrich promised votes on each of the proposals so conservatives would know "who says in Washington and does in Washington the same thing they say and do at home."

Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott was not as specific, but promised the agenda would be considered in the Senate as well.

Reed said the list was not a "1996 campaign document," but it quickly became part of GOP White House jockeying.

Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm, a presidential contender, attended the event and said he shared the coalition's goals of lower taxes and ending "federal efforts to have the government dictate culture in America."

Another presidential hopeful, Pat Buchanan, said he agreed with the Christian Coalition proposals but wished they included a constitutional amendment banning all abortions. "In the reach for consensus, I think they have given up a little bit in the way of boldness," said Buchanan.

Taking a contrarian view was Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a presidential hopeful who supports abortion rights. He criticized the abortion restrictions and the Religious Equality Amendment, which supporters say would restore the right of voluntary prayer in schools and at graduations, sporting events and other public ceremonies.

"It is time in America for unifying forces, not divisive forces," Specter said.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the early GOP front-runner, applauded the coalition agenda and said: "I believe that we must restore religious expression to its rightful place in our national conversation and our public life.

Another part of the organization's "contract" includes school choice programs allowing parents to use taxpayer money to send children to private schools. Also, it urges restrictions on pornographic material on the Internet computer network and tougher child pornography laws.

Reed said, "These are the 10 suggestions, they are not the 10 commandments," But critics dismissed such conciliatory language as a smoke screen.

"They want to make every abortion under every circumstance a crime," said Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.