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Dems, GOP trade jabs over Iraq

Daschle: Bush exploiting possible war

By Sean Loughlin (CNN Washington Bureau)

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle attacked the president on Iraq, and Minority Leader Trent Lott later rose in the administration's defense.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle attacked the president on Iraq, and Minority Leader Trent Lott later rose in the administration's defense.

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U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says President George W. Bush is playing politics over Iraq. CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (September 25)
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Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle accuses Vice President Dick Cheney of politicizing the Iraq debate  by urging an audience in Kansas to vote for a GOP candidate because he supports President Bush on the issue.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sharply stepping up the political rhetoric about Iraq, Democrats and Republicans traded shots Wednesday over whether the Bush administration was exploiting the possibility of war for political gain.

In a blistering salvo delivered on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle lashed out at Bush, saying the administration was doing just that and had impugned Senate Democrats in the process.

Daschle's speech set off a war of words throughout the day between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Daschle, D-South Dakota, read through a litany of comments from administration and GOP figures about Iraq, including one from Bush who was quoted by The Washington Post Wednesday as saying the Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people." The Senate is controlled by Democrats.

"Not interested in the security of the American people?" Daschle said. "You tell Sen. Inouye he's not interested in the security of the American people. You tell those who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they're not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. Outrageous. The president ought to apologize." (Full transcript)

Daniel Inouye is a Democratic senator from Hawaii who lost his arm in World War II.

Bush's comments of late about Senate Democrats and national security have come in the context of the fight over legislation for the proposed Department of Homeland Security .

Asked by reporters at the White House whether he was politicizing the war, Bush responded, "My job is to protect the American people. And I will continue to do that regardless of the season."

Bush's remark about the Senate not being "interested" in national security came at a campaign event Monday in New Jersey when the president was talking about the homeland security legislation, not Iraq.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Daschle took Bush's comment out of context and said Daschle was relying on misleading or erroneous press reports to make his charges.

"Now is a time for everybody concerned to take a deep breath, to stop finger-pointing and to work well together to protect our national security and our homeland defense," Fleischer told reporters. "That's how the president approaches this issue."

But Daschle returned to the Senate floor again late in the day and said there was "no context" in which the president could fairly question whether the Senate was interested in national security.

He rejected the White House explanation of Bush's remarks in New Jersey. "They're not worth the paper they're printed on," he declared.

With the midterm elections less than two months away, both parties have become especially sensitive to issues that may sway voters at the poll. Republicans need just one more GOP senator elected to regain control of that chamber.

A few hours after Daschle first spoke, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, took to the Senate floor and hit back, saying Democrats were unfairly attacking the president.

"Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?" asked Lott. Earlier, he said, Daschle "needs to cool the rhetoric."

Angry Democrats respond

According to sources, Democrats attending a weekly planning meeting Wednesday morning felt compelled to respond to Bush after reading an article in The Washington Post that they interpreted as portraying them as soft on national security. Angered lawmakers attending a weekly meeting said Bush, who was quoted in the article, could not go unchallenged, sources said.

Daschle responded in an unusual fashion, making pointed comments about the president on the Senate floor, accusing him and the GOP of politicizing a potential conflict with Iraq.

The White House wants Congress to approve a resolution that would authorize the use of force against Iraq, but many Democrats have criticized the draft as too broad. Negotiations over the resolution between White House and congressional aides continued behind closed doors.

Daschle cited a GOP pollster who said war as an issue could benefit Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. He referenced Vice President Dick Cheney who spoke about Iraq while campaigning for a Republican candidate in Kansas Monday.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota :
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota : "We ought not politicize this war."

And he talked about White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card who has been quoted as saying "from a marketing point of view" it made sense to raise the issue of Iraq after Labor Day when lawmakers would be back from their August break.

Daschle spoke as Bush met at the White House with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Bush did not talk specifically about Daschle's speech, but stressed his belief that the nation was "vulnerable" and he needed to act to "protect the American people."

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay dismissed the Democratic criticism.

"No one is playing politics with this war," the Texas Republican told CNN. "The war that started on 9/11 is an ongoing war that we have to deal with, but at the same time we have campaigns in this country, and what would you have the vice president do? Get out on the campaign trail and give a silent speech?"

But other Democrats joined in the criticism of the Bush administration.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, challenged the notion that the United States could launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, accused of developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions.

Byrd said the Bush administration had trivialized the congressional debate on authorizing the use of force.

"There is nothing more sobering than the decision to go to war," Byrd said. "But the administration has turned the decision into a bumper-sticker election theme."

The political rhetoric escalated as lawmakers held several hearings Wednesday about Iraq.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Samuel Berger, former national security adviser under President Clinton, urged the Bush administration to exhaust diplomatic efforts before taking any military action against Baghdad.

"The world expects us to test the nonmilitary options before we move to the military one," Berger said. "We also owe that to the men and women who will be risking their lives if we decide to do so."

And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from former U.S. ambassadors, who also stressed diplomacy.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Poland Wednesday that U.S. intelligence has determined there is a link between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, but he refused to elaborate. Rumsfeld was attending a NATO defense minister's meeting in Warsaw. (Full story)

--CNN Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report

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