Cracks in Democratic Party show split between centrists and liberals

Democrats have big majorities in both houses of Congress, but cracks are emerging — both legislatively and politically — that threaten to pit liberals and centrists against each other.

Where President Bush was able to enforce tight discipline on the Republican Conference while his political advisers exercised an iron grip on the national party, President Obama and his advisers have been less able to do so.

That, political watchers say, is not unusual, especially for a Democratic president.

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“The Democrats have always been herding cats,” said Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst. “They’ve always been considered to be the more diverse party, more racially diverse, more ethnically diverse” and, therefore, more ideologically diverse, he added.

Now that diversity is manifesting itself.

For all its efforts, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been unable to avoid primary challenges against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who switched parties at the end of April, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), appointed earlier this year to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In Congress, as the Senate inches forward on healthcare legislation, Democrats have to deal more with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, than with any Republican lawmaker.

And after cap-and-trade legislation passed the House by a narrow margin, the bill’s fate is more in the hands of Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), two Democrats with significant oil infrastructure in their states, than with any Republican.

Likewise, the Employee Free Choice Act, a leading priority for unions, has run into unexpected opponents on the Democratic side. With no Republicans willing to vote for cloture on the bill, opponents have targeted Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), among others, to convince them to block it. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has expressed serious reservations about the bill.

All that, Republicans and opponents of the three major measures hope, is enough to add up to serious Democratic headaches.

But, says Cook, the intra-party squabbling could actually pay off electorally if centrist senators manage to move the party toward the middle.

“The opposition might be good for Obama politically, because it reins him in a bit. He might be forced to compromise to get things through,” Cook said.

Still, it’s not any easier on the party’s left flank. Liberals are upset with the White House for continuing Bush-era policies on photographs of interrogations of Guantánamo detainees. Gay-rights groups have grown louder protesting the administration’s lack of movement on “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” among other issues.

Most notably, independent groups like MoveOn.org have run advertisements pressuring centrist Democrats into voting their way on certain measures — efforts with which Obama is not pleased.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Obama expressed concern about the advertisements in a conference call with key lawmakers last week, saying the groups should instead focus their fire on “winning” the healthcare debate.

With Al Franken (Minn.) set to be sworn in as the party’s 60th senator on Tuesday, Democrats have already argued that simply having 60 votes won’t be enough to ride roughshod over the Republican minority. The party says it does not expect to pass legislation single-handedly, and instead laid the blame at the GOP’s feet for failing to work with it on key measures.

“The challenges we face are not Democratic or Republican in nature. They are America’s challenges and they are too great to be solved by partisanship. Moving America forward will still require the cooperation and collaboration of Democrats and Republicans alike,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in introducing Franken. “The last eight years have shown us that the American people want us to work together. Democrats aren’t looking at Sen. Franken’s election as an opportunity to ram legislation through the Senate.”

“We’ve never looked at it as, ‘We want to pass everything with just Democratic support,’ ” said Rodell Mollineau, a Reid spokesman. “We’re trying to pass bipartisan legislation because we think the work that we have is too great to leave to partisanship.”

Even though Reps. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) seem set to take on the incumbent senators, Republicans have less of a chance of taking over either seat, even if the primaries become especially bloody.

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In Pennsylvania, the winner of the Specter-Sestak showdown will likely face ex-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who ran against Specter in the 2004 Republican primary, attacking him from the right. In New York, no top-level candidate has emerged to take on the winner of the Gillibrand-Maloney race.

“At the end of the day, Democrats are going to hold onto both of these seats because we know how important it is to have seats in the Senate to pass President Obama’s agenda to get this economy back on track,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Sens. Specter and Gillibrand are both strong advocates for their state and will be tough to beat in both a primary and a general election,” Schultz added.