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Outside Groups Seek To Instill Discipline Into Democrats January 23, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Politics, US News.

By Jim Kuhnhenn

WASHINGTON (AP)–Democratic lawmakers who stray too far from the party line could find themselves facing primary opponents financed by unions, trial lawyers and political activists eager to put the new congressional majority to the test.

After two weeks of near perfect unity, congressional Democrats now move into more divisive territory that will test party discipline on such issues as the war in Iraq, worker rights and health care.

Anti-war activists led by groups such as MoveOn.org and Win Without War have already mobilized, pressuring Democrats and Republicans to denounce U.S. President George W. Bush’s troop boosting plan for Iraq. But they also want tougher action, arguing that the elections that put Democrats in power were a referendum on the war.

This week, an influential group of organizers from labor and the liberal movement are banding together to hold Democrats in line on populist issues such as expanded health care, trade restrictions and worker protections.

“The idea is that this election was a watershed,” said Steve Rosenthal, one of the main organizers of the new labor coalition. “There is a great opportunity to begin moving America in a new direction of economic populism and fairness.”

The coalition has organized two entities – a lobbying wing called They Work For Us and a campaign arm called Working for Us PAC – that will target lawmakers who don’t support their agenda of raising wages, increasing jobs, providing more affordable health care and preventing job losses to foreign countries.

“Our PAC will encourage Democrats to act like Democrats – and if they don’t – they better get out of the way,” Rosenthal wrote in a memorandum describing the organization.

Outside pressure on Democrats is a sensitive issue within the party caucus. Democrats acknowledge the need for party discipline, but also recognize the different blocs that make up the party. Voters last November elected new Democrats from liberal, moderate and conservative districts. These Democrats won in a variety of regions and often defy tidy ideological descriptions.

“Instilling party discipline in our party is simply harder than in the Republican Party,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network. “We are a more diverse party than they are.”

Rosenthal said his coalition won’t target Democrats with moderate or conservative constituencies. As an example, he cited Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback who won a previously Republican seat in North Carolina. He ran as an opponent of abortion and gun control. But he voiced opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Clinton presidency pact long decried by organized labor.

“We’re not trying to force people to the left of their districts,” Rosenthal said. “We want to make sure that Democrats primarily represent their districts.”

In addition to Rosenthal, the coalition’s two groups are led by some of the most influential organizers in labor and liberal politics, including Anna Burger, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union; Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, and Linda Lipsen, a senior vice president at the American Association for Justice, formerly the American Trial Lawyers Association.

The Working for Us PAC Web site lists U.S. Reps. Ellen Tauscher of California, Henry Cuellar of Texas and Al Wynn of Maryland as three “top offenders.” The three are members of the party’s moderate to conservative wing who have broken with the party leadership on some key votes in the past.

“I’m not going to let any outside group dictate to me how I represent my district,” Cuellar said. “If we’re going to continue winning and keeping the majority and winning the presidency in ’08, we have to make sure we can attract the independent voters. We can do that with moderate centrist positions in the party.”

Tauscher spokesman Kevin Lawlor said Tauscher and her centrist colleagues “were in lockstep with Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and the Democratic leadership throughout the first 100 hours” of the new House session.

In the first two weeks of this congressional session, Pelosi pushed through a new package of ethics rules and popular legislation raising the minimum wage, expanding embryonic stem cell research, lowering student loan rates, requiring the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices and ending oil company subsidies. They all passed with unanimous or near unanimous support from Democrats and from Republicans as well.

“We’re going to look for those issues that have a consensus within the caucus,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of the House Democrats.

But Democrats also have vowed to go beyond those votes. And it is the details of further legislation that could put the party divisions on display.

“There will be good days and there will be bad days,” said U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who is credited with writing the script for the House Democratic victories last year. “You have the energy of the new members and the experience of the more senior members and you have to combine the two.”

The war is likely to be the first test.

In the Senate, Democrats are trying to rally Republicans to their side on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq. The House would likely follow. Anti-war groups, however, see this is as a beginning, not an end.

“The first step is going to be a nonbinding resolution. That leaves people wondering, ‘OK, what is the next step?” said former U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine, head of the anti-war groups Win Without War.

“If Democrats fail on that core issue,” he said, “all other issues are going to be much more difficult.”


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