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Clinton's 'plantation' remark draws fire

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Sen. Hillary Clinton said the Bush administration is "one of the worst" in U.S. history.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Hillary Clinton drew criticism Tuesday for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech in which she told a mostly black audience at a Harlem church that Republican leaders have run the House "like a plantation" and the Bush administration will go down as "one of the worst" in U.S. history.

Responding to the speech, House Speaker Dennis Hastert called her remarks "a little bit over the top."

"I've never run a plantation before. I'm not even sure of what kind of association she's trying to make," said the speaker, a Republican from Illinois. "If she's trying to be racist, I think that's unfortunate, but I'm not going to comment any further on that."

One of Clinton's Republican congressional colleagues from New York, Rep. Peter King, said the senator "should be ashamed."

"It's definitely using the race card. It definitely has racist connotations. She knows it," King said. "She knew the audience. She knew what she was trying to say, and it was wrong. And she should be ashamed."

However, the host of the event where Clinton made her remarks Monday, activist Al Sharpton, disagreed with the criticism.

"I absolutely defend her saying it because I said it through the '04 elections," he said.

Defenders of Clinton also have pointed out comments made in 1994 by former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shortly before Republicans won a majority in the House, in which he said Democrats "think it's their job to run the plantation" and that "it shocks them that I'm actually willing to lead the slave rebellion."

A spokesman for Clinton also defended the remarks, saying she was pointing out that the GOP House leadership has stifled substantive debate.

Unlike the Senate, where the rules allow the Democratic minority to extend debate and block legislation, House rules allow the GOP leadership to set limits on debate and dictate how legislation will be handled. In recent years, House Democrats have complained of Republicans running roughshod over them, although Democrats had the same power to control the agenda during the 40 years they held the House before GOP control.

In her speech Monday, Clinton, who has never served in the House, told the audience that "when you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about."

Clinton, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, was the second president in history to be impeached, also offered harsh criticism of President Bush.

"I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country," she said. Clinton also apologized to a group of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in the audience "on behalf of a government that left you behind."

Asked about her comments, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, said they were "out of bounds."

"Sounds like the political season may be starting early," he said.

Polls put Clinton at the front of the pack of potential 2008 Democratic presidential nominees. She is running for re-election this year in New York.

CNN's Mary Snow and Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

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