WASHINGTON — 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.