Musgrave’s made-for-TV political conversion a drama for CD 4 voters

Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave waits for the first of three debates with challenger Betsy Markey to begin. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave waits for the first of three debates with challenger Betsy Markey to begin. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

If U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave were in a reality television program — call it “Project Politics” — the economy and bipartisan cooperation would be in, and divisive social policies would be out.

Musgrave’s brand of politics has worn thin this campaign season, as economic, energy and health-care policy have pushed social issues off the front pages.

But even as Musgrave adjusts to the new political landscape by touting a seemingly centrist set of issues on the campaign trail, her legislative record shows that she has not left behind conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage.

For certain, in the past few weeks, Musgrave has found herself in as tough a spot as she’s ever been.

Sen. Barack Obama’s rise in the presidential polls has offered a boost to down-ballot candidates, including Musgrave’s Democratic rival for her 4th Congressional District seat, Betsey Markey. And last week the National Republican Congressional Committee left Musgrave to fend for herself.

“Musgrave has been fixated on social and cultural type issues and that has, through time, come to be a handicap rather than an advantage,” said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University.

As a result, Musgrave has put distance between her past support for conservative issues in Congress, such as a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and new restrictions on abortion.

Instead, on the campaign trail, she has emphasized her current work on energy policy, conservation and agricultural issues, and she has adopted a softer tone.

She’s trumpeted her work with Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to stop the Army’s expansion of Pinon Canyon in southeastern Colorado, to expand protection for Rocky Mountain National Park and to negotiate the $300 billion farm bill that Congress passed earlier this summer.

A podcast delivered from her office suggests efforts to protect 253,000 acres in Rocky Mountain National Park from development was “the end result of a long process” and a “well-crafted compromise” among Colorado’s two senators — Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Wayne Allard — Udall and herself. But Musgrave’s legislative record shows she has remained committed to the same social issues that have drawn the ire of Democrats and pushed away centrist Republicans.

She proposed bills last year to increase criminal sentencing of up to 15 years for possessing child pornography and to crack down on Internet service providers hosting such material, give parents the right to seek an injunction against a minor from having an abortion, and require that the text of the Pledge of Allegiance as well as the words, “In God We Trust,” be displayed in the new Capitol Visitor Center.

But it does not appear Musgrave spoke in favor of any of these measures on the House floor, and there are no references to the legislation on her congressional Web site. All the bills continue to languish in committee.

Perhaps signaling her reluctance to tout her commitment to social issues, a section of her Web site titled “Life” contains nothing related to abortion. A search of her Web site turns up no topics related to abortion or gay marriage.

In addition, Musgrave did not introduce her bill to define marriage in the current session of Congress, but she co-sponsored a similar bill offered by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.

Musgrave’s attendance record has also suffered during the past two years, perhaps underscoring the time spent on a tough re-election race. She missed 73 votes in 2007 and 2008, more than double the number of votes she missed in her previous four years in Congress.

Fiscally, at least, Musgrave has continued to present herself as a conservative. She swore off earmarks last year and proposed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

She proposed legislation earlier this year to repeal the 1993 income tax increase on Social Security benefits, and last month she voted against the $700 billion financial bailout package.

Musgrave also continues to be a loyal foot soldier in the House Republican Conference.

Musgrave rarely breaks with her party, voting with Republicans 93 percent of the time during the past two years, according to a tally of votes compiled by the Washington Post.

On the House floor, she is not afraid to employ procedural tactics to antagonize senior lawmakers. She joined a group of Republicans who spearheaded a charge against Democrats last August to keep the House in session until they passed an energy bill that included offshore drilling.

And she’s not afraid to throw some red meat to conservatives who happen to be watching C-SPAN. Speaking on the House floor earlier this year about the Democrats’ reluctance to expand offshore drilling, Musgrave went after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco and favorite conservative target.

“Speaker Pelosi, you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. This is a travesty,” Musgrave said.

In 2007 Musgrave continued squabbling with members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Last year Musgrave proposed a one-half-percent, across-the-board cut to some of the 13 spending bills that Congress must pass each year to keep the government running.

In a speech on the House floor in 2007, Musgrave pleaded with her colleagues to reduce spending in an appropriations bill to 4.3 percent from 4.8 percent. It’s not a spending cut, but “just a modicum of fiscal discipline.” The effort failed.

She’s also continued to taunt her longtime nemesis, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Musgrave, whose campaign and congressional aides did not return repeated phone calls for comment, prolonged her feud with Young by proposing to eliminate the Denali Commission, a panel that studies Alaska’s federal aid needs. Musgrave’s amendment failed to pass.

The appropriations process in 2008 was cut short, and Democrats passed a continuing resolution keeping federal spending at 2008 levels until next March.

The Denver Post blessed Musgrave’s conversion on the road to what she hopes will be a fourth term by endorsing her (the paper did not endorse her in 2004 or 2006). The paper dubbed her “Marilyn Version 2.1.”

Democrats came close to picking her off in 2004, and in 2006 she won by just 3 points.

“This would be an emotional high if she were gone,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., told a group of New York donors last week, adding that many of his colleagues would be relieved to rid the House of Musgrave’s anti-abortion and gay marriage views.

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Jonathan E. Kaplan

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