WASHINGTON - 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.
Antiwar activists led by groups such as MoveOn.org and Win Without War have already mobilized, pressuring Democrats and Republicans to denounce President 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 - which 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 memo 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 deal long decried by organized labor.
"We want to make sure that Democrats primarily represent their districts," Rosenthal said.
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, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union; Eli Pariser, 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 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.
The FBI should have acted to protect teenage House pages when it learned in July that Rep. Mark Foley had sent disturbing e-mail messages to a former page, a Justice Department report concluded yesterday.
The bureau, which declined at the time to investigate, also made inaccurate statements to the news media about its decision, the report said. It said FBI spokesmen wrongly said the decision had been influenced by a congressional watchdog group's failure to provide information missing from the e-mail.
The report, by Inspector General Glenn Fine, said the group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was not asked to provide any information from the messages - nor did the missing material influence the FBI's decision not to investigate. But Fine found no misconduct by FBI officials, who at the time were aware only of messages to a former page that were not sexually explicit.
The FBI did open an investigation after Foley (R., Fla.) resigned Sept. 29 and it was reported he had sent instant messages with sexual overtones to former male pages. The FBI has not commented on that investigation.
- Associated Press