It did not take long for Rep. Nancy Boyda, a freshman Democrat from Kansas, to learn the price of defying her party's liberal base. After she said she would support President Bush if he proposed an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq, antiwar bloggers fumed and MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group, considered running a television ad attacking her.
"If a member of Congress is wrong on Iraq, that is not what we voted for," said Tom Matzzie, MoveOn's Washington director. "There will be people watching to make sure they do the right thing."
That kind of political pressure is already being applied, not just to junior lawmakers, but also to Democratic leaders. It prodded them into making Iraq more central to their first 100 hours in control of Capitol Hill than they had planned. And it is creating tension between many Democrats and the liberal activists who will be increasingly important as the 2008 presidential campaign gets into gear.
Antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan, demanding a troop withdrawal, disrupted House Democratic leaders at their first-day news conference on ethics. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada was deluged with complaints when he appeared to be open to a troop increase and posted a notice on a liberal blog to explain that he was misunderstood. Dozens of demonstrators rallied outside a Washington think tank when Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) spoke in support of a troop escalation.
Antiwar activists, who believe that Democrats owe their 2006 election victories to voter discontent with the Iraq war, are thrilled that most congressional Democrats oppose Bush's proposed troop increase. But lawmakers are divided over how far to go in fighting the plan, and activists worry that the party will not have the political stamina to block the escalation and, beyond that, force a withdrawal of all troops.
"We have to look closely, not at what they say, but how they vote," said John Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group.
Some moderate Democrats worry that the pressure being applied by the antiwar left is misguided, arguing that voters want a change of course in Iraq but not a rapid withdrawal.
"Conventional wisdom says that presidential candidates who want to be responsible on this are going to hurt themselves with the angry, impassioned activist left," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "But the activist left is out of sync with the American public. Americans don't want to concede this is a total debacle."
For now, Democratic leaders are navigating the political crosscurrents by loudly criticizing Bush's troop buildup plan while sidestepping questions about the alternatives. They are also treading carefully around the question of whether Congress would try to block or restrict funding because many Democrats worry that will be seen as undercutting troops already in Iraq. "We understand the concerns [of antiwar activists] and we'll agree with them to the extent possible," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman. "But Democrats feel we need to do everything we can to give the troops what they need."
Democratic leaders had planned to emphasize domestic policy issues, not Iraq, in the opening weeks of their reign on Capitol Hill. The agenda for the first 100 hours in the House included quick action on a minimum-wage increase, lower drug prices for Medicare participants and other domestic issues; Iraq was to be relegated to a strung-out series of oversight hearings.
That is, in part, why Sheehan led a small group of protesters to interrupt a news conference on new ethics rules by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and other House leaders on the first day of the new Congress.
"De-escalate, investigate, troops home now!" they shouted.
Pressure on Democrats to take a more aggressive stand increased as word spread that Bush would propose a troop increase. When Reid was asked about it in a television interview in mid-December and indicated he might be willing to consider an increase, he came under withering fire from liberal activists. Two days later, he backed away from his support in a statement filed with the Huffington Post, a liberal blog.
Last week, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) sent a letter to Bush opposing the troop increase and calling instead for a phased withdrawal.
But they did not say what, if anything, Congress would do to force his hand.
Liberal activists have looked to other Democrats to be less cautious. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit paying for an increase in U.S. troops unless Congress voted to approve it.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a Democratic presidential candidate, Monday outlined his "comprehensive exit plan" and criticized party leaders.
"Democratic leaders well understand we regained control of the Congress because of the situation in Iraq," Kucinich said. "However, two months later, the Congress is still searching for a plan."
Liberal activists are plotting ways to keep up the pressure. Win Without War, a coalition of antiwar groups, is urging people to go to a website, http://www.americasaysno.org , to locate demonstrations to be held 24 hours after Bush's speech.
Website visitors can download protest signs saying: "NO!"
The group also is urging war critics to confront members of Congress in their home districts when they return in February for the first recess.
Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who heads the coalition, said that how the Democratic presidential contenders respond will be key to how liberals assess the field.
"We want true leaders to take the president on head on," said Andrews. "How political figures respond to this challenge is going to be a key barometer."
MoveOn.org, meanwhile, is planning a series of radio and television ads attacking lawmakers who support the Iraq war and its expansion.
Matzzie said the first ads will target Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the GOP presidential front-runner in many polls who has long called for a troop increase — and will air in states that hold early presidential primaries and caucuses.
Later ads also will criticize Democrats, such as Boyda, who stray from antiwar orthodoxy.
Just hours before she was sworn in, Boyda said on ABC that she would support funding for a troop increase because Bush, not Congress, had the authority to make the decision. "I think we're going to vote to support what the commander-in-chief and head of the military asks," said Boyda, who won an upset victory over a Republican incumbent in a conservative-leaning district.
Her staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Her statement on television was met with angry responses on the website of the Lawrence Journal-World.
"As a constituent who gave money to and campaigned for Nancy Boyda, my disappointment is deep and real," said one correspondent. "Boyda will be a one-termer if she does not get this one right."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times