Times Staff Writers

After toppling the long-dominant Republicans in a hard-fought election, the Democratic Party’s incoming congressional leaders have immediately found themselves in another difficult struggle -- with their own supporters.

Some of the very activists who helped propel the Democrats to a majority in the House and Senate last week are claiming credit for the victories and demanding what they consider their due: a set of ambitious -- and politically provocative -- actions on gun control, abortion, national security and other issues that party leaders fear could alienate moderate voters and leave Democrats vulnerable to GOP attacks as big spenders or soft on terrorism.

The conflict underscores the challenge facing the Democrats in line to lead Congress -- Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco in the House and Harry Reid of Nevada in the Senate. Each has pledged in recent days to “govern from the center,” after a campaign in which anger over the Iraq war and GOP scandals helped their party attract some unusually conservative candidates and a large share of independent voters.


Turning off those new voters could undermine Democrats’ hopes of solidifying their new majorities and taking the White House in 2008. But to the leaders of interest groups who are core supporters of the Democratic Party, and who had been barred under Republican rule from the inner sanctums of power, the new Congress means a time for action, not compromise.

Lobbyists for the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, are all but counting on Democrats to repeal the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorist law pushed by the White House that some critics call unconstitutional. They also want to end President Bush’s domestic wiretapping program.

“We are not going to let them off the hook,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU’s legislative director, of the newly empowered Democratic leaders in Congress.

“We will hold their feet to the fire and use all the tools we can to mobilize our members.”

Similar vows are coming from lobbyists for abortion rights, who want to expand family-planning options for poor women and scale back Bush’s focus on abstinence education, and from gun-control advocates, who hope to revive a lapsed ban on assault weapons. Labor unions, a core Democratic constituency, are demanding universal healthcare and laws discouraging corporations from seeking inexpensive labor overseas.

“It’s been kind of a drought for 12 years, and there is some pent-up energy,” said Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, the labor federation that has long been a Democratic Party stalwart and spent millions of dollars on get-out-the-vote activities.


Several of the labor movement’s less-controversial goals, such as raising the minimum wage and allowing Medicare to seek discounts on drug prices, are found both in the AFL-CIO’s brochures and on a Democratic leadership wish list designed to appeal across ideological lines.

But labor officials said they expected Pelosi, Reid and others to go further.

The day after the election, labor leaders declared a mandate for their causes and called on the new Congress to immediately reverse anti-union policies enacted by the Bush administration and promote affordable healthcare “for all.”

“We’re realistic about the congressional timetable, but we have our own view about why people went to the polls,” said Samuel. “We think it had to do with their unhappiness with Republican inaction on the economy.... They’re expecting Congress to tackle these issues, not play short ball.”

Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the liberal activist group, warned that Democratic leaders would be ill-advised to ignore the party’s base.

“A huge number of people were involved in putting them over the top,” Pariser said. “There’s a huge group of people engaged and energized and ready to support Pelosi and company when they boldly lead -- and to hold them to account if they stray.”

Pressure on Democrats is especially acute to redirect U.S. policy in Iraq. Many Democrats say the issue was the most important one driving the party’s victory.


Democratic lawmakers have not unified behind a single Iraq policy. If they could find common ground with Bush on a continued troop presence, they might fend off GOP efforts to label them as weak on national security -- but they would probably infuriate a growing antiwar movement that helped propel the party back into power.

“American voters have done their job; now it’s time for Congress to do theirs,” said former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine), national director of the antiwar group Win Without War. “The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s time to start the orderly withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Our eyes are on the new Congress.”

Other interest groups are pointing to Tuesday’s results as vindication of their particular causes, and as proof that Democrats should embrace their issues rather than shun them as too liberal.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which advocates abortion rights, pointed to victories by like-minded candidates in conservative states and a rejection by South Dakota voters of an abortion ban. The result, the group says, should be that Democrats view their causes as mainstream, rather than part of a liberal agenda, and should devote more money to contraception and other family-planning options opposed by religious conservatives and scaled back by the administration.

“I honestly believe there was no bigger winner in this election than Planned Parenthood Action Fund and women’s health,” said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, referring to the group’s political arm.

At the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the leading gun-control advocacy group, President Paul Helmke has high hopes for the assault weapons ban -- and he can list races where candidates backed by his group defeated those supported by the National Rifle Assn.


But Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., acknowledged that his challenge was to convince Democrats that his cause was not “radioactive.” Many Democratic strategists have come to believe that supporting gun-control laws alienates rural voters and many independents.

“Guns are a tricky issue,” Helmke said. “But the elections show there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Still, the issues of abortion and guns underscore the tough decisions facing Reid and Pelosi as they try to please the party’s core supporters while appealing to centrist voters.

The party’s winning formula this year, after all, required candidacies from cultural conservatives such as Rep.-elect Heath Shuler in western North Carolina and Sens.-elect Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia.

A preview of the tussle that awaits Reid and Pelosi has been playing out on the Internet since election day, with liberal bloggers decrying party centrists as out of touch with the Democratic majority. The complaints have been serious enough to draw Reid’s attention, prompting him to host a conference call after the election with more than a dozen of the country’s most prominent liberal bloggers.

Reid himself has learned to navigate these issues in order to win election in largely rural Nevada. He calls himself pro-gun and, according to a spokesman, opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest and when the woman’s life is endangered.


In the Senate, matters are further complicated by the fact that at least five Democrats -- nearly 10% of the caucus -- are considering presidential bids in which they may need to win the liberal base to gain the nomination but then campaign to the center in a general election.

Republicans have already said they intend to take back power in 2008 by portraying Democrats as big-government tax raisers who would rather safeguard civil liberties than interrogate terrorists.

Conservatives, though splintered over Iraq, immigration and other issues, had succeeded in keeping power since 1994 in part by forging a coalition built on compromise and shared goals -- a practice that Democrats have yet to perfect.

Senior Democrats say they will figure out a way to bridge the divide.

“Tension is inherent in politics, and maybe a little bit of tension is good,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “But on the core, fundamental issues, everyone’s in line.”

Wary that the interest groups’ demands may turn off the centrist voters who put them in the majority, some Democratic pragmatists are preparing to press for greater independence.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the committee that designed the party’s Senate campaign strategy, is publishing a book in January that is expected to lay out a plan for long-term Democratic dominance. He is expected to embrace a philosophy somewhere between the Democrats’ old New Deal reliance on government and conservatives’ outright disdain for government.


Schumer signaled as much after the election when he called on the party to “push aside the special interests and always keep our eye on the average American family.”