WASHINGTON — For some of the Democratic party's loyal supporters, this is turning out to be a summer of discontent.
In recent weeks, a prominent anti-war activist announced plans to challenge Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Four major Hispanic organizations protested the "mixed message" on immigration from congressional Democrats. Even a Democratic senator blamed his party for "giving in" on a key privacy issue.
Last November's election gave Democrats control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1994. But some of the party's key constituencies are having a hard time understanding why the sweeping changes they anticipated have been so slow in coming.
"We did our job as citizens," said Dana Balicki, a spokeswoman for the anti-war protest group CodePink She qualified Congress' efforts to reverse President Bush's Iraq policy as "baby steps."
Political science experts, including Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, say the party's track record is not surprising given that its margin of control is narrow and its caucus prone to splitting along regional and ideological lines. Pitney thinks party leaders are victims of their own hype.
"They raised a lot of expectations, but it was never in the cards they could bring about revolutionary change," he said. "They have a narrow majority and a president of the other party."
The limits of the party's power were vividly on display as the House and Senate rushed to wrap up legislation before leaving for a month-long August recess. The votes of centrist Democrats helped the president win expanded wiretapping authority. They also cleared the way for a Senate vote on a judicial nominee whose rulings have angered gay rights advocates.
More splits in Democratic ranks loom in September.
A report from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will renew debate over war policy. Some conservative Democrats, such as Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, have voted against setting a date for troop withdrawal.
On energy policy, an effort to reconcile competing House and Senate bills will ignite a battle over fuel-efficiency standards. Regional interests have trumped party loyalty for Democrats from automaker states, such as Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
Party leaders are aware of the discontent. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who's in charge of rounding up Democratic votes for legislation, says "it's a real challenge" to balance the interests of a group of 231 lawmakers that includes a 43-member Black Caucus, 24-member Hispanic Caucus, a 72-member Out of Iraq Caucus and 42 freshmen, half of them from districts that Bush carried in 2004.
Liberal activists are not sympathetic. Cindy Sheehan, who camped in front of the president's Texas ranch to protest the death of her son in Iraq, announced Thursday she's running against Pelosi in next year's election. Sheehan wants the speaker to introduce articles of impeachment against Bush.
While CodePink doesn't endorse Sheehan's candidacy, the group understands her motivation, Balicki said. "We had a certain expectation that people we were electing under this mandate for peace would lead us out of this war," she said.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., chastised members of his party in an online column for The Huffington Post after the House and Senate approved controversial wiretapping legislation that he said will give the government power to snoop on Americans without warrants.
The administration said it needed the measure to conduct anti-terrorist surveillance; 18 Senate Democrats and 41 in the House voted for the measure. Eleven of the House Democrats were freshmen who face re-election next year in districts that Bush carried in 2004.
"Congress has buckled to pressure and intimidation by the administration," Feingold wrote.
Similarly, immigrant rights advocates such as Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum contend that some Democrats "seem spooked" on what to do with about 12 million illegal immigrants.
"They seem to be a bit inexperienced in controlling the levers of power," Sharry said.
At the outset of this year's immigration debate, Democratic congressional leaders — along with the president — rejected the demands of some Republican conservatives that Congress concentrate on beefing up border security before considering whether to provide illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship. Nevertheless, after failing to pass a comprehensive plan to overhaul immigration, the Senate last month approved an additional $3 billion for more fencing and detention facilities along the border.
Last month, top Hispanic leaders, including Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, told Pelosi in a letter they are "outraged" by a suggestion from one of her top lieutenants — Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. — that a comprehensive approach to immigration would have to wait until the second term of the next Democratic presidency. Emanuel issued a statement expressing his "continuing commitment" to the legislation but didn't deny making the remark.
Gay rights leaders were equally outraged when, in the last week before recess, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended confirmation of Leslie Southwick to a post on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sided with committee Republicans to send the nomination to the Senate floor for a vote.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights organization, protested Southwick's ruling that a lesbian mother could forfeit custody of her child because of her sexual orientation.
However low his poll numbers, the president still has the ability to make nominations, advocate for legislation and drive the national agenda. "Congress doesn't have it within its power to immediately and dramatically reverse policies," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.