Rhetoric Takes Nasty Turn in Congress


A Republican accuses Democrats of demonizing Christians. A Democrat talks of Nazis in connection with the treatment of terror suspects. Both sides cry foul, and apologies are hard to come by.

It’s just another day of vitriolic gotchas at the Capitol.

House Republicans on Tuesday were all over Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, because of recent comments in which he referred to Nazis, Soviets and Cambodia’s Pol Pot in describing the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

On Monday, House Democrats stopped debate on a defense spending bill to protest a comment by Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., that, “like moths to a flame, Democrats can’t help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.”

Hostettler later agreed to strike those words from the record, but Republicans were not backing down. “Hostettler may have said it unartfully,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Tuesday. But “Democrats are constantly attacking people of faith.”

DeLay, R-Texas, also decided to get in a couple of licks at Durbin, calling his remarks about Guantanamo Bay a “premeditated and monstrous attack against America’s military.”

Durbin on Tuesday apologized to those who “believe my remarks crossed the line.” He spoke after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said previous expressions of regret weren’t enough. ‘“Shameful’ does not begin to describe this heinous slander against our country," Frist said.

These were two of the latest instances in which one party swooped down on the comments, ill-spoken or not, of a member of the other party.

When House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi last week called the war in Iraq a “grotesque mistake,” the top three GOP leaders quickly condemned her and, by association, her party. “Leader Pelosi and the Democratic leadership should support our troops instead of spreading inflammatory statements,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said.

House Democrats last week demanded a votewhich they lostto condemn Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. They complained that Sensenbrenner abruptly ended a hearing where Democratic witnesses were criticizing the Patriot Act, and added insult to injury by then having the microphones turned off.

“The chairman is entitled to his opinions,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “He is not entitled to break the rules, abuse his power and impose his will.”

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the sole Jewish Republican in the House, escalated the cross-party bashing Tuesday when he criticized what he said was the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic rhetoric of prominent Democrats.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, himself a constant target of GOP attack for his broad swipes at Republicans, last week disavowed literature distributed at a recent Democratic gathering that implied that Israel was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“While I appreciate Howard Dean’s apology, I wonder if his apology applies to all of his fellow Democrats’ anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric?” Cantor said in a statement, listing nine examples over the past few years of what he said were Democrats making inappropriate remarks about Jews or Israel.

“More than anything else, these statements are a reflection of this polarized and poisonous political time in which we live,” said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of politics and communications at the University of Notre Dame . “It seems as though every outrageous statement is matched by a similarly outrageous reaction, which only amplifies the rhetoric and creates more of a problem for people trying to understand politics today.”

Age and leadership have proven to be no defense against overblown statements. Both 87-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and the Senate’s third-ranked Republican, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, took hits when they referred to Hitler and the Nazis during the recent debate over judicial filibusters.

DeLay, who relishes opportunities to attack Democrats, is constantly hammered by Democrats for his remarks. Democrats asked whether DeLay was advocating violence against judges when he stated that the time will come for judges involved in the Terry Schiavo case to “answer for their behavior.”

And Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., responding Tuesday to DeLay’s latest attacks on Pelosi, said it was “a form of McCarthyism where you attack anybody who criticizes … anybody who suggests that maybe Tom DeLay is not the only person in the Congress of the United States who has all the truth.”

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