WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle angrily attacked President Bush and his administration yesterday, accusing them of using the debates on Iraq and homeland defense to challenge Democrats' commitment to national security.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Daschle demanded an apology from Bush, shouting: "You tell those [Democrats] who fought in Vietnam and in World War II they're not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous - outrageous!
"We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death."
On a day filled with intensely partisan clashes on Capitol Hill, Daschle exploded in a rare display of rage. The South Dakota Democrat pointed to reports of recent remarks by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as proof that the White House is trying to score political points in advance of the November elections by asserting that Democrats don't care enough about protecting Americans.
Daschle's anger apparently was triggered by comments Bush made Monday at a campaign event in New Jersey. There, the president accused Senate Democrats of holding up legislation to create a Homeland Security Department and said the Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people."
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said yesterday: "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 homeland defense."
White House officials said Daschle had taken comments by Bush and Cheney out of context. They said that in the remarks Daschle criticized, the president was referring only to homeland security, not to Iraq, and argued that Bush also had appealed for bipartisanship.
Daschle's speech signaled the eruption of what aides described as his long-simmering frustration about the Republican message on national security issues in the run-up to the elections. The Democrats' control of the closely divided Senate, and Daschle's position as majority leader, are at stake in November.
Homeland security and a possible war against Iraq are dominating the congressional agenda despite Democrats' efforts to focus on domestic issues such as the struggling economy, health care and pension reform that they believe favor their party.
Legislation to create a Homeland Security Department to protect against terrorism has stalled in the Senate over a dispute about workers' rights in the new agency.
Daschle's speech comes at a delicate moment for congressional Democrats. Their leaders have been cooperating with Republicans and the White House to craft a resolution that would authorize Bush to use force in Iraq. Yet many rank-and-file Democrats complain that their party is yielding too easily to the White House argument that Bush should have the authority to launch a unilateral attack against Saddam Hussein's regime.
"We have a big difference of opinion over this," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, said of his party's position on invading Iraq. "I wish it were not there, but it is."
Doggett is one of a growing number of House Democrats who oppose broad authority for Bush to strike Iraq. Another member of that group, Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey of New York, complained that many Democrats are rushing to vote on an Iraq resolution despite their reservations, "motivated by the idea of wanting to get back to the domestic agenda."
"This is much too important for that," Hinchey said. "The administration is going out of its way and working aggressively to stifle dissent" on its Iraq policy.
Congressional Republicans shot back angrily at Daschle after the speech, with Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi saying he was "deeply saddened by the tenor and tone" of his Democratic counterpart.
"We live in grave times when this body should be carefully and deliberately debating the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose against the United States," Lott said. "Who is the enemy here? The president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?"
Before a meeting yesterday with President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Bush was not asked specifically about Daschle's accusations. But asked whether he was "politicizing the war" in general, the president said: "My job is to protect the American people. I will continue to do that, regardless of the season."
In his speech, Daschle referred to remarks Bush made about the homeland security bill in which the president accused Senate Democrats of stalling to protect the "special interests" of organized labor. Democrats oppose a White House proposal to allow Bush to deny workers in the new department collective bargaining rights if national security is at stake.
Democrats said they resent having their commitment to national security questioned because of their support for worker protections.
"I'm tired of the cynical manipulation of this process," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "I feel like I'm being set up here - that if we stand up for the workers, we're somehow or another slowing down the debate with homeland security."
Fleischer declined to say yesterday whether Bush stood by his comments on Monday. But the White House spokesman said Bush had also spoken of "trying to bring the Democrats and Republicans together" on a homeland security bill.
"There's no getting around the fact that if the Senate does not pass it, that the security of our country will not have been protected," Fleischer added.
After the president made his comments Monday, he sounded the same theme the next day at the White House. He said his message "to the senators up here that are more interested in special interests" is that "you better pay attention to the overall interests of protecting the American people."
Daschle also referred to comments by Cheney at a fund-raiser Monday in Kansas for Adam Taff, a Republican congressional candidate.
Cheney said he looked forward to a Taff victory, saying the Republican candidate would "be vital in helping us meet the key priorities for the nation - in terms of winning the war on terror, strengthening the economy, and defending our homeland."
Congressional Republicans echoed White House officials' criticism of Daschle's attack.
"You can criticize the president's policies - that's fair game - but I think it's very wrong to criticize his motives," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.
After Daschle's speech, the sniping seemed to escalate, as lawmakers staged a string of events to express indignation at their opponents' charges.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, said that regardless of whether Bush and his administration were referring to homeland security or to Iraq, their comments were inappropriate.
"If we begin questioning motives, if we begin dragging any of this into politics, ultimately we will fail," Gephardt said.
"We are in a dangerous period, and it is a politically charged atmosphere. But we have a responsibility to do the right thing for the American people."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said: "To imply that Democrats are not interested in the security of the American people is not only wrong, but in the present pre-election period, I believe it is base."
At one point yesterday, Bush seemed to strain for the proper reply when asked whether Hussein had become a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaida. He paused, then said: "That is an interesting question - I'm trying to think of something humorous to say. But I can't when I think about al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.
"They're both risks, they're both dangerous," Bush added. "Both of them need to be dealt with."