WASHINGTON—As the applause of their first days in power fades, Democrats face the daunting reality that their reign probably will be judged not on easy tasks such as raising the minimum wage, but on how they handle the Iraq war, an issue that divides their own party and defies easy solution.
Democratic leaders oppose President Bush's expected escalation of the war. They urge instead a U.S. troop withdrawal starting in four to six months. And they'll conduct oversight hearings on Iraq in Congress, starting Wednesday in the Senate and Jan. 17 in the House of Representatives.
But Iraq isn't part of their much-ballyhooed agenda for their first 100 hours of business, even though 3 out of 4 Americans call it their top priority for the government and it's a major reason for the Democrats' takeover of Congress. And it's unclear what, if anything, the Democrats will do after that.
They've offered no concrete proposal to end the war. That could anger the party's liberal base, which demands action to end the war. At the same time, bowing to that base could threaten the party's broader appeal.
Democratic leaders say there's little they can do directly to end the war. They note that Bush has the power as commander in chief to send troops where he will, and that he'd veto any legislation to withdraw troops.
"To pretend that we could deal with that in the first 100 hours," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader, "would be unrealistic and dishonest."
Rather, they hope that their opposition to a "surge" in troop levels plus the publicity of televised hearings will satisfy their base while putting more pressure on Bush to end the war.
"The public has spoken. The polls are very clear," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who'll open the House hearings. "The policy has to be changed."
Given their reluctance to force that change now, Democratic leaders could be hoping to build a chain reaction. Their hearings could drive an already disgruntled public to demand stronger action, which then could embolden the Democratic-led Congress to use its power of the purse to insist that money for the troops be used to redeploy them out of Iraq.
The antiwar left doesn't want to wait.
About two dozen war protesters disrupted a Democratic news conference on ethics reform last week, chanting "troops out now."
Emboldened by the primary defeat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, though he went on to win the November election as an independent, antiwar liberals also warn of more primary challenges to those who balk at ending the war.
"It could get very nasty within the party," said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of the liberal MoveOn.org Political Action. "We have a presidential nomination fight coming up. And we have a revived Democratic grassroots that feels confident challenging Democrats in primaries."
He said he welcomed Democratic opposition to the troop surge, as well as hearings. But he pressed for more forceful actions, such as using Congress' power over spending or the War Powers Act to force a withdrawal.
"The grassroots wants to see opposition to escalation, but we're not going to be overly patient if there's no action on an exit," he said. "Oversight is needed. But that's not enough. Congress needs to force a change in U.S.-Iraq policy."
Angering their base is risky for Democrats. But appearing captive to it also carries risks, as Republicans learned last year when they invited a public backlash by bowing to Christian conservatives in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman.
"Both parties have a base that is militant and angry and they're very demanding," said Dick Armey, the former Republican majority leader in the House.
"And they're going to show up constantly and demand that each party conduct the affairs of the House in a manner to appease that militant angry base. If you do that, as the Republicans did in some instances, you make yourself less attractive to a broad spectrum of voters."
That's the challenge facing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even as they rack up victories in coming weeks on such issues as ethics rules, financing for embryonic stem-cell research and banning members from flying on corporate jets.
"They cherry-picked some issues that are popular with the public. That will give them a short-term political boost," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
"But once you get beyond that 100-hour agenda, the Democratic caucus is very diverse. And getting them to unify is not going to be easy. Their liberal base wants immediate withdrawal and the caucus is not going to go along with that.
"It's going to be hard to govern."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.