WASHINGTON – The Senate's top Republican sharply accused Democrats Friday of undermining the Senate Intelligence Committee (search) in their zeal to score political points against President Bush.
Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee also suggested that an escalating partisan fight over the committee's inquiry into prewar intelligence (search) could prompt the panel to finish its investigation more quickly than had been anticipated.
Frist was the latest Republican to denounce a Democratic memo leaked this week that outlines a strategy for exposing contradictions between intelligence reports and Bush's claims about Iraqi weapons programs.
The memo suggested that Democrats "pull the majority along as far as we can" on issues leading to major new disclosures and said that the best time to "pull the trigger" on launching an independent investigation would probably be next year. Republicans note that would time it for the presidential election.
Frist, in a floor speech, said the plan would "so politicize the Intelligence Committee as to render it incapable of meeting its responsibilities to the United States Senate and to the American people."
He said "those responsible for this memo appear to be more focused on winning the White House than they are on winning the war against terror."
Frist said the staff member who wrote the memo should be identified and Democrats should renounce the document and apologize to the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, has said that the document was written by a staff member but never circulated among senators and had apparently been stolen. He has not renounced the document though, saying it reflected frustration over the Republicans' refusal to examine whether the administration manipulated prewar intelligence.
The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, said: "It wouldn't have been made public but for the majority."
"And doesn't the minority have a right to, in the secret confines of the Intelligence Committee rooms, have pieces of paper there that aren't going to be pilfered by the majority?" he said.
The committee inquiry is examining the accuracy of intelligence on former leader Saddam Hussein's weapons programs (search) and his ties to terrorists, the issues that served as Bush's main argument for war.
Frist's comments suggested that the committee will speed up the work in light of the Democratic memo. On Tuesday, Roberts said it would be difficult to complete an interim report before the Senate adjourns late this month or in December. He said he didn't know if a draft report could be circulated among committee members before they return in January.
But Frist said Friday he and Roberts determined that the review will be finished this year.
"There will be no more pulling along and no more useful collaboration on partisan schemes," he said, alluding to language in the memo.
A past Democratic leader on the committee, former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, said Frist's comments risk escalating divisions on a panel that has been traditionally nonpartisan. He said Frist and the Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota "should get together and they should calm this thing down." He said it is up to the leadership to protect the committee from political pressures.
"Only Frist and Daschle can calm the waters," he said.