Nearly four months after unexpected election losses prompted a reevaluation of their priorities, congressional Democrats are conflicted over their party's direction, deeply divided over Iraq and struggling to agree on a domestic agenda.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have encountered difficulty rallying the party behind a unified attack on President Bush, particularly with the party so split over whether the nation should go to war against Iraq with limited international support. Four Democrats from the Senate and two from the House are running for president, testing their own ideas and sapping attention from party leaders in Washington.
"You're always going to have discord when you have this many people running and trying to get their message out," said Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly. "We are trying to build unity and consensus."
House Democrats are split over whether to push a Medicare prescription drug benefit costing between $800 billion and $1 trillion, twice as much as the Bush budget calls for, or present a plan to balance the budget by the end of the decade. Party leaders in the House will present their Medicare prescription drug proposal today, but several key members worry it will undermine the broader budget message.
This reflects broader tension between traditional liberals, who favor greater government spending, and so-called New Democrats, who want to follow former president Bill Clinton's footsteps and pursue balanced budgets.
"It's extremely difficult to do a responsible budget that includes an $800 billion or $900 billion prescription drug benefit," said Rep. Chris John (D-La.), a self-described deficit hawk. "Therein lies the battle."
Democrats have come together to attack Bush's tax cut plan as what they view as a risky giveaway to the rich. "Without a question, this will exacerbate our debt and complicate our fiscal circumstances beyond anything, I would say, in history," Daschle said last week.
Daschle, in particular, has kept his party in line; only one Democratic senator, Zell Miller of Georgia, has endorsed the Bush tax plan so far. Democrats also are following Daschle's advice by increasingly questioning the president's truthfulness, especially when it comes to homeland defense.
But some Democrats said the party's anti-Bush campaign has been undermined because Daschle and Pelosi did not agree early on to a single alternative tax cut plan to promote. Democrats have floated at least 10 different tax cut proposals this year. Many Democrats feel they lost seats during the last election because they did not pass a budget resolution and offer one clear alternative to Bush's economic policy. "On the economy it has been difficult and vexing," said Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.). "There's a yearning by a lot of us to have a single message to rally around."
The longer it takes Democrats to find common ground, the harder it will be for the party to present a coherent agenda and message to voters heading into the next election, party strategists said. It will also be harder for Democrats to exploit Bush's stumbles until they get their own act together politically.
Some Democrats believe they need to wait for the anticipated war with Iraq to end and then pick a presidential nominee quickly before finishing a unified Democratic platform.
After losing their Senate majority and six seats in the House, many feel a sense of urgency.
While the 2004 elections are 20 months away, Republicans open the campaign with some notable, albeit surmountable, advantages. They control the White House and both houses of Congress for only the second time since the Eisenhower administration. The majority party sets the agenda and typically commands greater media attention.
Republicans also are jumping out to a big lead in fundraising. Congressional Republicans raised more than three times as much money as Democrats did in January, according to Federal Election Commission records. The GOP's early money advantage is particularly worrisome to Democrats because many of the most competitive House and Senate races in 2004 will be staged on turf that Bush won in the last election. Some Democratic donors are refusing to contribute large sums of money until party leaders iron out their differences.
Daschle and Pelosi are trying to pull their party out of its post-election funk by assailing Bush for what they see as a propensity to mislead the American people, particularly on issues pertaining to the economy and anti-terrorism efforts at home. By talking up what they view as Bush's "credibility gap," Democrats hope to chip away at the public perception of Bush as moral and trustworthy. Most Democrats feel both leaders have done an admirable job of salving the party's wounds and trying to steer attention away from deep divisions over Iraq.
Still Daschle and Pelosi are often upstaged -- and sometimes undercut -- by Democratic lawmakers running for president or others trying to push the party in a different direction. Pelosi, for instance, has been at odds with the second-ranking House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, over several key policies.
Hoyer, who considers himself more moderate than Pelosi, strongly backs Bush on the war and believes Democrats need to appeal to swing voters by losing the perception they are big spenders and weak on national defense. "I believe the Democrats need to have the American public know that we are for a strong defense," he said.
Pelosi led the fight against the Bush war resolution and traditionally backs liberals on budget policies.
In private meetings last week, several Democrats said Pelosi advocated a big prescription drug plan, while Hoyer sided with moderates who feel an austere budget plan is best.
But it is the debate over Iraq that primarily divides Democrats. Daschle and Pelosi, while saying Bush should try harder to win international backing before going to war, have been relatively silent in the debate. Daschle, who supported the Iraq war resolution, refused to endorse a campaign by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other antiwar Democrats to force a new Senate debate on whether to go to war without backing from the United Nations, aides said. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), articulating a view shared by many Democratic activists, has marched to the Senate floor several times in recent weeks to condemn Bush's Iraq policy as bullying and wrongheaded.
Democratic presidential candidates such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Vermont governor Howard Dean are pounding the antiwar drums, too, prompting some colleagues to worry that the party appears too soft on national defense. "This makes it more difficult for the American people to say Democrats . . . will defend the country," Hoyer said.
In essence, the party is split into three camps: those who support Bush, those who want Bush to seek greater international backing before going to war and those who oppose war. Party leaders have shot down attempts by some senators to issue letters articulating a unified view on weapons inspectors or plans to rebuild Iraq in the wake of a war.
"We have to accept the fact that we are divided on the situation in Iraq and not pretend . . . there is anything approaching unanimity," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.). "On domestic issues, we will talk things through and get to an agreement."