Of the three most recognizable Barneys in America, one is a singing purple dinosaur, another is a prehistoric cartoon character and the third is a gay congressman from Massachusetts.
Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, is as closely tied to the issue of gay rights as Barney Rubble is to Fred Flintstone. But recently, Frank has been under siege by gay rights groups.
They are angry because Frank has removed specific language about gender identity from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect gay men and lesbians in the workplace and that gay rights advocates say would now leave transsexuals and transgender individuals vulnerable.
There is almost no chance that President Bush would ever sign the bill. But the bitter tug of war between gay groups and one of their best friends on Capitol Hill is the latest example of how Democrats in Congress, since regaining majority control this year, have been torn between making compromises needed to pass legislation and satisfying the unrelenting demands of the party’s liberal base.
Frank, in an hourlong news conference on Thursday, defended himself and said he would press ahead with the bill, knowing that by not including the transgender language he could attract enough votes to get it approved. But he also expressed frustration that the Democrats were hampering themselves.
“There is a tendency in American politics for the people who feel most passionately about an issue, particularly ones that focus on a single issue, to be unrealistic in what a democratic political system can deliver,” Frank said, “and that can be self-defeating. He added: ”This is a moment of truth for responsible liberals in the Democratic Party.“
The tension between Democratic lawmakers and their base has been most visible on the Iraq war, where the insistence by some of the most outspoken antiwar groups on setting hard deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops has often handcuffed Senate Democrats trying to reach a bipartisan deal on legislation to change the war strategy.
To the delight of Republicans, it has also played a role in a host of other issues, including a fight over increased fuel economy standards in the energy bill, and demands for increased spending on environmental programs in the farm bill.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi disappointed Democrats seeking major changes to the federal farm subsidy program — changes Pelosi had supported in the past. Instead she adopted a more moderate approach that made some changes but left most of the subsidies intact and that she called “a good first step.”
On the energy bill, the Democrats struggled to navigate the demands of two powerful factions in their base — organized labor groups tied to the auto industry and environmental groups. Rep. John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, thwarted Pelosi’s efforts to increase fuel efficiency standards.
The liberal group MoveOn.org started a campaign that included radio advertising branding Dingell, 81, “Dingellsaurus” for opposing the energy standards that the group said would combat global warming.