Defending Kerry, senator blasts 'chicken hawks'
Lautenberg criticizes Cheney for questioning record
Sen. Frank Lautenberg on Wednesday points to a picture of President Bush declaring an end to major combat in Iraq last year.
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Sen. Frank Lautenberg blasts Cheney.
CNN's Kelly Wallace on the military service debate.
CNN's Bob Franken on the Supreme Court and Cheney.
We know who the chicken hawks are. They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others.
I think that's wrong. I wish we'd stop it. I wish we'd just stop, at least until the fighting in Iraq is over with.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The rough-and-tumble of the presidential campaign spilled onto the Senate floor Wednesday in an unusually sharp and personal exchange over military service during the Vietnam War.
Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey blasted Vice President Dick Cheney as "the lead chicken hawk" against Sen. John Kerry and criticized other Republicans for questioning the Democratic presidential contender's military credentials.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spent more than four years as a prisoner of war, scolded Lautenberg for attacking the Bush administration during the Iraq conflict and said it was time to "declare that the Vietnam War is over."
Wednesday's exchange was the latest development in an increasingly harsh spat between the Kerry and Bush campaigns over military service and national defense.
While saying they commend Kerry's service in Vietnam for which he was decorated several times, some Republicans have questioned his antiwar protests when he returned.
And the Bush-Cheney campaign is depicting Kerry as soft on defense with television ads that question some of his votes against weapons programs during his four terms in the U.S. Senate.
Kerry, meanwhile, has begun to question Bush's military service during the Vietnam era, saying he "can't even show or prove that he showed up for duty in the National Guard."
Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard but has been dogged by questions about whether he reported for duty during a one-year stint in Alabama. The White House maintains Bush fulfilled his service obligations. Kerry served in combat as a Navy patrol boat commander in Vietnam.
The controversy reached new heights on the Senate floor.
In a scathing speech, Lautenberg said he did not think politicians should be judged by whether they had military service but that "when those who didn't serve attack the heroism of those who did, I find it particularly offensive."
Lautenberg pointed to a poster with a drawing of a chicken in a military uniform that defined a chicken hawk as "a person enthusiastic about war, provided someone else fights it."
"They shriek like a hawk, but they have the backbone of the chicken," he said.
"We know who the chicken hawks are. They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others. When it was their turn to serve where were they? AWOL -- that's where they were," Lautenberg said.
"And now the chicken hawks are cackling about Senator John Kerry. And the lead chicken hawk against Senator Kerry is the vice president of the United States -- Vice President Cheney.
"He was in Missouri this week claiming that Senator Kerry was not up to the job of protecting this nation. What nerve. Where was Dick Cheney when that war was going on?" Lautenberg said.
Cheney did not serve in the U.S. military. Lautenberg quoted a Cheney interview from the 1980s that he had "other priorities" in the '60s than military service.
In a speech Monday at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Cheney attacked Kerry's votes in the Senate to cut weapons programs, his opposition to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and recent comments that the war on terror should not be thought of primarily as a military operation.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Cheney criticized Kerry on policy issues and said that "no one is questioning his military service."
Lautenberg compared Cheney's remarks with the GOP campaign against former Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat whose defeat in 2002 has been a sore spot to many in his party.
"Max Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam and they shamed him so that he was pushed out of office because he was portrayed as weak on defense," Lautenberg said. "Where do they come off with that kind of stuff?"
Cleland, an Army officer in the war, has been a key player in the Kerry campaign, delivering speeches praising the candidate, reaching out to fellow veterans and attacking Bush.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Cleland offered a harsh critique of Bush, comparing the president's Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War with Kerry's tour of duty in the Navy.
"He has not suffered," Cleland said of Bush. "He has not sacrificed for his country, and he doesn't understand those who have."
In the Senate, Lautenberg also criticized Bush for declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.
He showed a picture of Bush giving a speech on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln with the banner "Mission Accomplished" in the background.
"The mission accomplished was to get a picture that could be used in an election campaign," Lautenberg said.
Since that speech, 587 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, including 415 in hostile action.
And Lautenberg criticized the president for saying "bring 'em on" to Iraqi insurgents.
"I served in Europe in World War II," he said. "The last thing I wanted to hear from my commander in chief, or my local commander, is dare the enemy to launch attacks against us."
McCain, the next senator to speak, said he had planned to discuss an Internet tax moratorium bill but that he felt he needed to address Lautenberg's remarks.
He said reasonable differences of opinion existed about the handling of the Iraq war but that the Senate should focus on making the operation successful.
"What are we doing on the floor of the Senate? We're attacking the president's credentials because of his service that ended ... more than 30 years ago," McCain said.
"I think that's wrong. I wish we'd stop it. I wish we'd just stop, at least until the fighting in Iraq is over with."
He called for a bipartisan approach to "seeing this thing through because we cannot afford to fail."
"At least could we declare that the Vietnam War is over and have a cease-fire and agree that both candidates, the president of the United States and Senator Kerry, served honorably -- end of story?" McCain said.
"Now let's focus our attention on the conflict that's taking place in Iraq, that is taking American lives as I speak on this floor," he said.