WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dick Armey, the second-ranking Republican in the House, set off a political furor yesterday when he referred to Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, as "Barney Fag."
The Texas Republican said he had inadvertently stumbled over the pronunciation of Mr. Frank's name during a lengthy radio interview, and he immediately apologized to the congressman.
But Mr. Frank said he could not accept that the remark had been "a total accident."
"Slips of the tongue occur when people say things they are thinking, but didn't mean to say," Mr. Frank said. "I think it is reflective of the prejudice that is in the air on [the Republican] side of the aisle."
Mr. Armey angrily protested on the House floor yesterday that the news media had created a "firestorm" by airing a tape of the interview "as if it were an intentional personal attack."
"I condemn the use of such slurs," the angry majority leader told his colleagues, his bottom lip quivering. "I apologize for the perception created by the press that I would even think in such terms . . . as if I had no sense of decency, cordiality, respect or even good manners."
Gay rights advocates and Democratic colleagues of Mr. Frank quickly seized on the incident. Mr. Armey, one of the more blunt members of the new Republican leadership, has made no secret of his impatience with Mr. Frank's apparent new role as minority watchdog on the House floor.
"This is the language of a schoolyard bully, and it has to be answered immediately," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state.
Mr. Armey's reference to Mr. Frank came during an interview yesterday morning with radio reporters who had asked how he was handling payment for a book he is writing, considering the controversy caused by the lucrative book deal negotiated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Mr. Armey said he would give all his book proceeds to charity to avoid the kind of criticism Mr. Gingrich has encountered, some of which has come from Mr. Frank.
"Newt is always able to handle a harangue going on around him better than I am," Mr. Armey said. "I like peace and quiet. And I don't need to listen to Barney Fag (pause), Barney Frank, (emphasis on 'Frank') haranguing in my ear because I made a few bucks off a book I worked on. I just don't want to listen to it."
None of the reporters who took part in the interview remarked about the comment at the time. Some said they didn't hear it until they listened to their tapes later.
When questions were directed to Mr. Armey's office, the majority leader quickly tried to put the issue to rest. He explained that he never intended to use the word "fag" and that it did not reflect his thinking.
Mr. Armey called Mr. Frank during a House Judiciary Committee hearing to apologize, and later he sought the Democrat out for a face-to-face meeting on the House floor.
But as accounts of the incident were aired by the news media, criticism of Mr. Armey began building. Gay-rights groups held a news conference on the Capitol grounds to speak out against Mr. Armey's remark.
And several of Mr. Frank's Democratic colleagues contended that Mr. Armey's reference fit a pattern of intolerance by the new Republican majority.
"Mr. Armey is too damn careless with his mouth," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, who called the comment part of a GOP "strategy of hatred and division."
Republican friends of Mr. Armey rallied to his defense.
"Dick Armey doesn't have a malicious bone in his body," said Rep. Steve Gunderson, a Wisconsin Republican who recalled that Mr. Armey stood up for him when Mr. Gunderson's homosexuality was publicly revealed by a Republican colleague on the House floor last year.
"Dick Armey feels terrible about this."