WASHINGTON -- For anti-war activists, turning against House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer was only the beginning.
The liberal group MoveOn.org ran radio ads this week chastising the Southern Maryland Democrat for voting against a measure that would have forced a withdrawal from Iraq within 180 days.
But that attack ad was nothing compared with the vitriol unleashed yesterday, as war opponents lit into the rest of the Democratic leadership for agreeing to drop a withdrawal timeline from the Iraq spending bill.
"An abandonment of our troops and a silence of the will of the American people," said Win Without War Director Tom Andrews.
"It is remarkable that they can't stand up to President Bush," said Susan Shaer, director of Women's Action for New Directions.
Six months ago, MoveOn cheered the Democratic takeover of Congress. Leaders of the group, which claims 3.2 million members, expressed cautious support for the new majority's plan to start forcing an end to the war by attaching conditions to spending.
But after learning about the latest version of the bill, after Bush vetoed one that had timelines, the group began threatening to recruit challengers to Democrats who support it.
"Voters elected Democrats in November to lead the way out of the mess in Iraq," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn's political action director.
He said his members want the group "to consider all options" for Democrats "who ran on ending the war but vote for more chaos and more troops."
The reaction, swift and angry, makes clear the pressure confronting congressional Democrats, who find themselves caught between anti-war activists and an unyielding commander in chief.
Bush has vowed another veto if Congress ties funding to deadlines for withdrawal. Democrats lack the votes to override that action, and party leaders fear the political consequences of voting to cut off funds altogether.
Democratic leaders have tried to cast the deal negotiated with the White House as a step toward ending the war. For the first time, they say, Congress would establish benchmarks for Iraq's government and require Bush to report on progress.
"We have put an end to blank checks for war and an end to the president's policy of more troops, more money, more time and more of the same," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "We have begun the process of implementing new policies, of bringing accountability to this war, and of forging a new direction in Iraq."
Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said Democrats might not have much to fear from angry liberals, at least for now.
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"It's a year-plus until primary time, which is a long time away," he said. "People understand the nuances enough to know that there are certain political compromises that need and have to be made in order to gather together the broadest consensus."
But divisions over the issue are deep, and widening, even among Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she will vote against funding without timelines. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold said he could not support a bill "that contains nothing more than toothless benchmarks."
With other Democrats likely to follow suit, party vote-counters were left to rely on Republican support to help pass the funding.
Anti-war groups are urging Congress to reject the bill, which the House is to take up today.
"This is a key test vote on whether your representative is serious about ending the war," MoveOn activist Nita Chaudhary wrote.
Such language is a departure for MoveOn, which had shown moderation in its willingness to work with Democrats on drawing down U.S. involvement. Other groups have taken a harder line, pushing against any further war spending beyond what would be necessary to bring troops home.
MoveOn leaders had said they were looking forward to supporting Hoyer as he worked toward ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"He's shown he can be a great anti-war leader for the Democrats," Tom Matzzie, Washington director for the group, said in February. "The next six months is going to be a real trial for Democrats. Hoyer's skills inside the House will be a big asset."
Barely halfway into those six months, MoveOn began beaming its anti-Hoyer message into his district, blasting his vote against starting a pullout.
"We were so proud when he was made majority leader of the House of Representatives," an announcer intones. "But that pride has turned to disappointment. Because last week, Steny Hoyer was one of just a few Democrats to vote against the McGovern bill - a real plan for withdrawing from Iraq."
Hoyer's office says he understands "the passion" that many feel about the war.
In a statement, Hoyer said he was "deeply disappointed that the president continues to defy the will of the American people on Iraq, but ... I do believe that Democrats this week imposed a level of accountability where formerly there was none, and we will continue our efforts."
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun