Hard-core loyalists in both the Democratic and Republican parties are at odds with their leaders.
The base on each side is being forced to accept something they detest: For GOP loyalists, it is an immigration overhaul that would legalize millions of illegal workers; for Democrats, it is $100 billion more to pay for a war they thought they voted to end last November.
But will unhappiness in each party have any practical electoral effect on the 2008 elections?
Will the schisms in each party hurt Republican candidates in next year’s elections more than Democrats — or vice versa?
Will left-of-center groups such as Moveon.org back anti-war challengers in primaries to try to defeat any of the Democrats who voted for the Iraq funding?
As with President Clinton’s push for congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, President Bush runs the risk of souring GOP voters on the issue of immigration, perhaps so much so that they stay home on Election Day.
According to former House Democratic Whip David Bonior, a large number of labor union members sat out the 1994 elections after Clinton’s push for NAFTA. He believes a demoralized Democratic base led to the election of a GOP-controlled Congress.
Bush Senate ally becomes foe
Personifying the Republican loyalists who’ve split with Bush on immigration is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
In 2005 and 2006, few Republicans were more faithful allies of the president. According to Congressional Quarterly’s annual vote tally, Sessions supported Bush on 90 percent of roll call votes in 2005 and on 91 percent in 2006.
But Bush has alienated Sessions and other conservatives by pushing for an immigration bill that will allow illegal immigrants to become legal permanent residents.
Coming out of a meeting Tuesday with Bush who had trekked to Capitol Hill to urge GOP senators to back the immigration bill, Sessions told reporters he was chagrined that the president referred to immigration as “a highly emotional issue.”
“I don’t like him saying people are very emotional about this,” the Alabama Republican said.
“That’s a way to dismiss some of the concerns we have. I get a little tired of people saying ‘it is a very emotional subject’ as if to say, ‘people who don’t agree with me are emotional and irrational.’”
“The question is, ‘do the Republicans support their own president’s immigration bill?’ The answer is a resounding ‘no,’” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D- Nev., told reporters Tuesday after Bush left his huddle with Republican senators.
Reid pointed out that 38 of the Senate’s 49 Republican members voted last week to block a final vote on the immigration measure.
But some of those Republicans only voted to block a vote as a tactic to force Democrats to allow more amendments to the bill.
Bush position no surprise
What’s remarkable is the virtual unanimity of GOP anxiety or outright opposition to Bush on immigration.
There’s evidence in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of just how much the GOP base rejects Bush’s immigration proposals.
Nearly two-thirds of self-described conservatives and “strong Republicans” in the poll oppose the idea of allowing illegal workers who arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2007 to get a work visa as long as they pay a $5000 fine.
But it is not as if Republicans did not know who they were nominating in 2000 when they chose Bush. He made a point of reaching out to Latinos in that campaign and arguing that “family values do not stop at the Rio Grande” — explaining, if not condoning, illegal immigrants who cross the border to work in the United States.
But Republican opposition to Bush’s immigration push is broad and deep and not just in conservative-voting states such as Alabama.
How immigration plays in suburban Philly
Rep. Jim Gerlach, R- Pa., who represents a suburban district west of Philadelphia, said, “We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of letters, e-mails, and calls, virtually all opposed to the Senate immigration bill. Maybe one or two calls in support, but 400 calls and letters and e-mails against it.”
He added, “I think this issue doesn’t stem from the actual number of illegal immigrants (in his district), but the principles behind the reform legislation. There’s just a very strong undercurrent that everybody’s got to play by the same rules of the game.”
“A lot of people back in my district say ‘why don’t you just basically provide for more manpower to enforce current law and maybe that would deal effectively with a lot of the problem,” Gerlach said.
He survived a tough re-election race last November with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Republicans such as Gerlach can ill afford to alienate GOP loyalists by going along with Bush on this issue. And — unlike Bush — Gerlach will be on the ballot next year.
Gerlach credits Bush with deep knowledge of the immigration issue based on his years as Texas governor. But he added, “Frankly, with all due respect, that’s not where my constituents are and it’s not just my Republican constituents. A lot of independents and Democrats don’t support the Senate bill.”
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said that he’s assuming that Sen. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee next year and that she’ll unify Republicans. “The fear of a second Clinton administration will be greater than the discontent with Republicans over immigration,” Ayres said.
As for potential primary challengers to Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a supporter of Bush’s immigration efforts, Ayres said, “There’s a big difference between grousing and mounting a serious challenge to a strong incumbent.”
Hoyer vs. Pelosi on Iraq funds
The schism in Democrat ranks is illustrated by last month's vote on continued funding for the war in Iraq with no withdrawal deadline attached.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer voted “yes."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voted "no."
In all, 86 House Democrats, nearly 40 percent of the Democratic membership, voted for the funding.
Last December, anti-war leader Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, saw this moment might come and said “the voters will not forget who let them down” if Congress chooses to keep funding the war.
He predicted that “Democrats will be held accountable in the 2008 primaries…. The war will not go away as an issue. The Democratic base will make sure of it.”
But with control of Congress up for grabs, is there too much at stake for party loyalists to punish members for their Iraq votes?
While a few House Democrats who’d supported Iraq war funding faced anti-war primary challengers last year, only one, Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland, came close to losing his primary.
This time around a primary challenger has already emerged to try to oust freshman House Democrat Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York who voted last month to continue to fund the war.
Putting Democrats' majority at risk?
But forcing incumbents to spend money they’d need for the general election would weaken them and would put in jeopardy Pelosi’s 233-member House majority.
The Democratic-affiliated anti-war group, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, is launching its summer campaign Thursday in 40 congressional districts, all of them Republican-held. It is not targeting Democrats such as Gillibrand who voted for the Iraq war funds.
“Our summer program is focused on Republicans because of simple math.
If we can break off five Republicans in the Senate, we can the end the war,” said Moira Mack, spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.