Activists on the Left Applying Pressure to Democratic Leaders

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Democratic leaders set to take control of Congress tomorrow are facing mounting pressure from liberal activists to chart a more confrontational course on Iraq and the issues of human rights and civil liberties, with some even calling for the impeachment of President Bush.

The carefully calibrated legislative blitz that Democrats have devised for the first 100 hours of power has left some activists worried the passion that swept the party to power in November is already dissipating. A cluster of protesters will greet the new congressional leaders at the Capitol tomorrow. They will not be disgruntled conservatives wary of Democratic control, but liberals demanding a ban on torture, an end to warrantless domestic spying and a restoration of curbed civil liberties.

The protest will be followed by an evening forum calling for the president's impeachment, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and a pro-impeachment group called World Can't Wait.

Those priorities will not be in evidence inside the Capitol, where the newly sworn-in Democratic Congress will immediately begin work on new ethics rules, the reinstitution of federal deficit controls and new policies designed to increase civility in House proceedings. In the coming weeks, Democrats plan to pass bills designed to raise the minimum wage, lower prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients and interest rates for student borrowers, bolster homeland security and boost alternative energy research.

Nowhere in the Democrats' consensus-driven agenda is legislation revisiting last year's establishment of military tribunals and suspending legal rights for suspected terrorists. Nor is there a revision of the civil liberties provisions of the USA Patriot Act, a measure curbing warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency or an aggressive confrontation of the president on his Iraq war policies.

To Democratic activists and some lawmakers, the agenda skirts the larger issues that damaged the president's approval ratings and torpedoed Republican control of Congress.

"We've been told for many years, 12 years now, 'Wait until we get in power. Then you'll see things change,' " said Debra Sweet, national director of World Can't Wait, a pro-impeachment group helping to organize the protest. "We'll give them a couple of months or a few weeks to see what they come up with, but if they don't do something very decisive around the war and these other issues, I think there will be trouble."

"If the first 100 hours is going to be characterized by an increase in the minimum wage and improved health and education benefits for Americans, that's fine," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a liberal firebrand who ran for president in 2004 and has announced for 2008. "But then let's talk about the second hundred hours, because we cannot let this war be lost. We cannot abandon the troops in the field to temporizing."

To most Democratic lawmakers, such activism presents a quandary. House Republican leaders spent years trying to placate their conservative base with agendas built around opposition to same-sex marriage, antiabortion votes and tax cuts, said Sen.-elect Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). The partisan tone enraged Democrats and ultimately alienated moderates and independents, who swept the GOP from power in November after a dozen years in control.

"The Democrats have to be careful not to fall into these traps that I think paralyzed the Republicans," Cardin said.

But Democratic lawmakers -- especially the freshmen who capitalized on voter discontent -- said their core supporters' anger is real and must be acknowledged.

"Those people protesting on Thursday care deeply about their country," said Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, an incoming House freshman who ran as an ardent opponent of Bush and the war. "I think we do need to pay attention. People are begging us to remember the Constitution, what made this country great."

One lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating such voters, said wherever he goes, he hears from activists calling for Bush's impeachment. Cutting off funding for the Iraq war comes in a close second.

"For most progressive activists, there is generally speaking, an open mind but also a real fear that the 110th [Congress] will not be as aggressive as many of us want it to be," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way. "On the other hand, there is a lot of pragmatism as we go into the 2008 election season. There's this high-wire act for everybody, not only for the House and Senate leadership but for the progressive community, too."

The high-wire act will be on display almost as soon as the new Congress is sworn in. The first motion from the House floor will be a parliamentary inquiry from Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) on the disputed election to replace retired Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). In November's balloting, Republican Vern Buchanan beat Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes.

But more than 18,000 ballots that day did not record a vote in the closely contested race, an "undervote" rate of nearly 15 percent, mainly from the Democrat's stronghold of Sarasota County. An academic study, commissioned by the company that made the electronic voting machines, found "that there is essentially a 100 percent chance that Jennings would have won" had Sarasota voters cast their votes with different machines and ballots.

Holt's inquiry will make clear that Buchanan's swearing-in tomorrow should not prejudice or compromise a House investigation or ongoing legal challenges to his election. But that falls well short of activist demands that the seat be left vacant, or even that the House simply seat Jennings.

Holt said he is willing to take the heat for that decision.

"There are some Democrats who say we should seize that seat any way we can," he acknowledged. "But if in a heavy-handed way, we just say we've got the votes and we're going to throw out Vern Buchanan, we would undermine the principle we say we are fighting for."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company