WASHINGTON – After a grueling day of political warfare, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle remained defiant late Wednesday saying that explanations of context of comments by President Bush earlier in the week were not "worth the paper they are printed on."
"I want all the apologies at the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, all of these explanations about context to be taken for what they are worth. They are not worth the paper they are printed on," Daschle said on the Senate floor.
"The time has come to quit the explanations, to quit the rationalizations, to quit the politicizations and do what we should do as Americans: Make our statement, make our judgment, have a debate and send as clear a message to Saddam Hussein as we can, that we are not going to tolerate his actions."
Earlier in the day, Daschle demanded that Bush apologize for what Daschle said was an implication that the Democratic-controlled Senate was compromising national security.
"That is wrong," Daschle said on the Senate floor in an impassioned speech. "We ought not to politicize this war. We ought not to politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death."
Daschle was referring to an article in Wednesday's Washington Post, in which Bush was quoted as saying, "Democrats are not interested in the security of the American people."
The president's actual comments, made during a fund-raiser for GOP Senate candidate Doug Forrester in Trenton, N.J., concerned the bill creating a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Bush said that Senate Democrats were slowing debate in a politically motivated effort to preserve civil service protections that he said would tie his hands.
"The House responded" to the White House version of the bill, Bush said in New Jersey, "but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."
"I will not accept a Department of Homeland Security that does not allow this president and future presidents to better keep the American people secure," Bush added.
At his daily briefing Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that the president has differences with Capitol Hill on some issues, but that his comments were not an indictment of any members.
"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 our homeland defense. That's how the president approaches this issue," Fleischer said.
Earlier in the day, Daschle delivered a blustered protest against the president's insinuations.
"We've got to rise to a higher level," Daschle said. "Our founding fathers would be embarrassed by what they see going on right now. We've got to be better than this, our standard of deportment ought to be better. Those who died gave their lives for better than what we're giving now."
"You tell those who fought in Vietnam and World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people" because they are Democrats, Daschle said later in his daily question-and-answer with reporters. "That is outrageous."
The rhetoric flew from both sides of the aisle throughout the day.
Fleischer's message of bipartisanship received strong support from one of the Senate's Democratic members, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who warned Senate Democrats not to use the homeland security legislation for political gain.
"I've never seen such a clear choice as there is on this issue. For me, there are no shades of gray. It is clear cut," Miller said. "We must give the president the flexibility to respond to terrorism on a moment's notice. He's got to be able to shift resources, including personnel, at the blink of an eye. Why do we hold so dear a personnel system that was created in 1833 and that is as outdated as an oxcart on the expressway?"
Earlier in the day, Bush responded to Daschle's Senate-floor comments, saying whatever actions the White House takes are in the best interest of the United States.
"I am as determined today as I was on September 11th to pursue an enemy which still wants to hurt America," Bush said. "The American people should expect me and any president to do everything we can to protect the homeland, and I will."
Reaction was also quick from Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who said Daschle needs "to tone down the rhetoric."
"Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?" Lott asked, adding that he believes Daschle's comments were "flat wrong" and likely the result of The Post's mischaracterization of the president's remarks.
Daschle has expressed reservations about a proposed congressional resolution that would give the president wide-ranging authority to use force if Iraq does not comply with past U.N. Security Council resolutions and immediately disarm.
He has said that he would like to limit some of the resolution's language in order to keep Congress involved. However, both he and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., have said that minor modifications could win broad Democratic support for the measure.
Some rank-and-file Democratic congressmen who oppose action in Iraq have said privately that Daschle and Gephardt are being too easy on Bush, and that they want more partisanship against the White House.
Another concern that may be motivating Daschle and other Democrats is the mid-term elections in six weeks.
In recent polls, voters who say they will participate in the November election have said that Iraq, national security and terrorism are their most important concerns, beating even the sluggish economy as a primary issue.
Democrats, however, are more interested in making domestic and economic issues first and foremost in the November election, since they appear to be polling better than Republicans on those issues.
Daschle's comments also came two days after former Vice President Al Gore said that the rest of the world now is more concerned about a U.S.-Iraq confrontation than of terrorism.
"Daschle is trying to compete with Al Gore for the presidential nomination, obviously, so maybe he has come a little bit late to the political table," said Peter Johnson, a Fox News political analyst. "This is a substantial statement that he is making, but it is a risky statement in terms of the politics."
While some Democrats have publicly shared Gore's sentiments, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Gore's former running mate, said he disagreed with Gore's comments that the focus on Iraq is damaging the war on terrorism.
"I respectfully disagree with that part of it," Lieberman said. "I am confident the American military can do, and will do, both at once."
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.