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Daschle Accuses Bush of Playing Politics on Iraq

Debate: Senate majority leader, in rare outburst, demands an apology over what he sees as an attack on Democrats' concern for U.S. security.

September 26, 2002|JANET HOOK and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a blow to White House efforts to unite Congress behind a potential war with Iraq, the Senate's top Democrat on Wednesday accused President Bush of politicizing the debate and demanded he apologize for questioning the commitment of Democrats to the nation's defense.

"That is outrageous," Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an angry speech on the Senate floor. He lambasted Bush for saying recently that Democratic-controlled Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people."

The bitter outburst--which touched off a vitriolic exchange between party leaders--is likely to slow efforts to win congressional approval of a resolution giving Bush broad authority to use force against Iraq.

That, in turn, could complicate Bush's effort to build support in the international community for a tough new stance toward Iraq.

Congressional leaders had earlier said they hoped to reach agreement with the White House on the wording of the Iraq resolution by the end of this week and bring the measure to a vote next week.

Now, there are doubts about whether such quick agreement is possible.

"We have a ways to go," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "I don't know if we'll pull that off or not."

Daschle's speech brought to the surface the deep anxieties many Democrats have expressed privately that Bush has been pushing for a preelection debate on Iraq to bolster GOP candidates and to eclipse a Democratic agenda that focuses on domestic issues.

But White House officials and other Republicans said Daschle had taken Bush's comments out of context, and urged Democrats to cool their rhetoric.

"Now is a time for everybody concerned to take a deep breath and stop finger-pointing," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Still, the tensions over the Iraq issue contributed to an already poisonous political atmosphere that has made it difficult for Congress to resolve differences on an array of issues, including legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security.

Members of both parties who support Bush's Iraq policy said they hoped Wednesday's collapse of bipartisanship will be only temporary.

"Hopefully, we will see this as a blowing of the whistle, which leads to a lowering of voices on all sides," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who supports the option of preemptive action against Iraq.

Democratic concerns about Bush's motives in the Iraq debate have become more acute in recent days as Republicans began airing campaign ads in such conservative states as South Dakota and Arkansas suggesting that Democratic Senate candidates were weak on defense.

In several states, GOP ads have also spotlighted contributions Democratic candidates have received from the Council for a Livable World, a group that advocates arms control and a smaller Pentagon budget.

Bush, meanwhile, is in the midst of an aggressive schedule of political appearances and has been speaking with increasing forcefulness about Iraq while campaigning for GOP candidates.

Targeting Democrats

In a clear reference to Daschle and other Senate Democrats, Bush said in Trenton, N.J., on Monday, "The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."

Until Wednesday, Daschle had studiously avoided accusing Bush of using the prospect of war for political purposes. But he dropped that reserve Wednesday after reading a story in the Washington Post that noted Bush's New Jersey remark. The story also said that at a fund-raiser in Kansas on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney had suggested that a vote for a Republican House candidate would help the war effort.

Those reports were particularly galling to Daschle because he--like Gephardt--has taken considerable heat from rank-and-file Democrats who believe their leaders have done too little to slow Bush's rush to confront Iraq.

A source close to Daschle said that on Wednesday, the majority leader felt that "his efforts to work with the president are not being reciprocated in a meaningful way."

Indeed, the usually mild-mannered Daschle rose angrily on the Senate floor to defend his party's record on national security. He invoked the many Democratic lawmakers who are military veterans, such as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who lost an arm in World War II combat.

"The president ought to apologize to Sen. Inouye and every veteran who has fought in every war who is a Democrat in the Senate," said Daschle. "Our founding fathers would be embarrassed by what they are seeing going on right now."

Inouye also spoke, saying to Bush: "It is American to question the president.... I stand before you a proud member of the Democratically controlled Senate.''

Daschle's remarks infuriated Republicans, who joined the White House in saying he quoted Bush out of context. They noted that he made his comment about Democrats as he was discussing legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security, not a possible war with Iraq.

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