WASHINGTON – Politics used to stop at the water's edge, but with less than a month before a hotly contested midterm election, even a possible underground nuclear missile test launched by North Korea is President Bush's fault, several Democrats suggested Monday.
"Distracted by Iraq and paralyzed by internal divisions, the Bush administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea, and has too often tried to downplay the issue or change the subject," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.
"While George Bush bogged our military down to topple a regime that had no weapons of mass destruction, a brutal dictator in North Korea has strengthened a nuclear arsenal that has the potential to threaten the West Coast of the United States," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who's in a tough re-election fight against Republican Tom Kean Jr.
“We had the opportunity to stop North Korea from increasing its nuclear power, but George Bush went to sleep at the switch while he pursued his narrow agenda in Iraq. When the world was crying out for leadership, George Bush gave it negligence. The war in Iraq has tied our hands and our enemies know it," Menendez said.
Democrats are pinning their hopes for a congressional majority on a linkage between GOP incumbents and the politically unpopular Bush. Even one Senate candidate not yet in office offered her critique of the president.
"Under the Bush administration, North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, kicked out inspectors, reprocessed nuclear fuel, flagrantly tested their delivery systems, and built an arsenal of six-12 nuclear weapons they did not have six years ago," said Missouri Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill.
The barrage was too much for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who shot back that Democrats will criticize Bush regardless of whichever approach he takes to international relations.
"The Democrats need to take a deep breath and realize that this is not about the election, and that Americans don't want anyone playing partisan politics with the threat of nuclear weapons," McConnell, R-Ky., said.
"The president's political opponents attack him for a 'unilateral' approach to Iraq. Now they attack him over a multilateral approach to North Korea. Listening to some Democrats, you'd think the enemy was George Bush, not Kim Jong Il," McConnell said.
On Sunday night, North Korea shocked the world when it seemingly tested a nuclear warhead. Though it was still uncertain whether the seismic activity recorded beneath the ground was in fact a nuclear detonation, Bush criticized the action Monday and called on the U.N. Security Council to respond.
• Raw Data: North Korean Statement on Alleged Nuke Test
"The United States condemns this provocative act," the president said from the White House. "Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community and the international community will respond."
The president said he spoke with the other four heads of state participating in six-party talks with North Korea. The leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and Russia all " agreed that the proclaimed actions taken by North Korea are unacceptable and deserve an immediate response by the United Nations Security Council," Bush said.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the action in Monday morning meetings, but now it is left up to the international body to enact wide-ranging sanctions to punish Pyongyang. Some options under consideration include a trade ban on military and luxury items, the power to inspect all cargo entering or leaving the country and the freezing of assets connected with its weapons programs.
"Ambassador (John) Bolton is floating several ideas, several elements that we hope will be put into a Security Council resolution, which will not just comprise an angry letter to Kim Jong Il, but will really take some measures designed to impede his ability to get the technology and get the financing for these weapons of mass destruction," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told FOX News. "We're talking about really making it hurt."
Hill added: "We're not going to accept [North Korea] as a nuclear nation. We're going to do all we can to make sure that they come to the understanding that they cannot have a future with nuclear weapons."
Speaking at the United Nations, Bolton, the U.S. envoy to the global organization, told reporters that the Security Council would be willing to work "24/7 if need be" to get a resolution. He said while discussions are still in the early phases, he was strongly encouraged by the mood of the Council.
"I didn't see any protectors of North Korea in that room this morning," Bolton said.
The U.S. president said any effort by Pyongyang to sell nuclear weapons of materials to terror groups or state sponsors of terror such as Iran and Syria "would be considered a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable to the consequences of such action."
The United States has defense agreements with Tokyo and Seoul, with thousands of U.S. troops stationed in both countries. Bush said the United States "will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments" to allies South Korea and Japan.
The United States so far appears unlikely to take any unilateral action against North Korea, and certainly not any military action. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not meet Monday morning, though they were fully informed of the test. He said the activity in North Korea does not mean a change to any existing plans.
"As far as the detail plans go, we can't discuss war plans, but we have, as you can imagine, we have war plans for every contingency you can imagine. But it is certainly a development that we wish it wouldn't happen for sure," Schoomaker said at the Association of U.S. Army's annual meeting.
Lawmakers and foreign policy analysts also have expressed hesitation that China would be willing to institute tough sanctions on Pyongyang. North Korea relies on Chinese energy and food aid, and could be a powerful lever to force North Korea back to talks on ending its nuclear program. But China doesn't want to see a massive refugee crisis in its borders from starving North Koreans seeking to flee an isolated country.
"It is now imperative for Beijing to demonstrate that it is a responsible stakeholder in the community and step forward to enforce a rigorous sanctions regime against Pyongyang as a result of this reckless behavior," said retiring Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
While China expressed "resolute opposition" to the test, Amb. James Lilly, who represented the U.S. in both China and South Korea, said Beijing needs to ratchet up its pressure on North Korea with stiff economic sanctions — something China has been reluctant to do.
"China says these people really are in very difficult shape and if they collapse it's going to be very much of a nightmare for us. So it's better to prop them up in the short term," Lilly said.
Lilly added that the United States won't use offensive military action against Pyongyang, but it can send a message to Beijing about the fallout from a limited response.
"If you don't do something about North Korea, weapons of mass destruction could spread in Asia; Japan, South Korea, even Taiwan," he said.
While the Security Council so far appears unified, Democratic lawmakers seem conflicted over how many and what types of diplomatic prongs the United States should use in dealing with Pyongyang.
"The recently passed defense authorization bill requires President Bush to appoint a high level coordinator for North Korean policy," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "That appointment should be made immediately and other nations whose policies on North Korea have also so clearly failed, like China, must urgently develop new approaches as well."
"This demonstration of defiance shows the weakness of the six-party approach as well as the danger of this administration's hands-off approach to North Korea," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "It is time for the U.S. to directly engage in this crisis and take strong action with the international community to address this threat to our national security."
"The Security Council should respond quickly and decisively to this act. And it is abundantly clear that the administration must go into diplomatic overdrive, working 24-7 with our allies in the region and the world to advance an effective response and prevent further North Korean tests," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
For their part, Republicans appeared no more conclusive about the appropriate response to North Korea's provocation.
"I support President Bush's efforts in seeking a diplomatic resolution to this situation, recognizing that this provocation justifies a strong, measured, and immediate response from the United Nations," Hyde said.
North Korea's action is "the desperate act of a criminal regime," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill, who added that the House would support Bush and the international community in condemning North Korea's "reckless decision."
Some GOPers also had blame to lay, and it wasn't all at the feet of the Bush administration.
"The Clinton administration didn't do much and, even while they were negotiating with the North Koreans, the North Koreans were continuing to develop nuclear weapons," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
"During the Clinton administration we set up a policy and it was continued during the Bush administration, of subsidizing this lunatic regime in North Korea," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., referring to food aid programs that he says allowed Pyongyang to divert its resources to its weapons systems. "That regime would have collapsed a long time ago had we not been subsidizing it. And we should immediately cut off that stipend."
Rohrabacher and others did offer some concrete suggestions.
"There is money available, we are in a tight spot now, if we don't get sucked into direct military action against North Korea, which should be the very last thing we look at, we can accomplish this by simply putting limited resources into setting up a missile defense shield now," Rohrabacher said.
"I think the steps that we have to take now are, first with the nuclear proliferation initiative, we need to stop every ship coming in and out of North Korea. And on each of these ships there's only two things they export. One are missiles and, two, they export opium. That will cut off the hard currency going into the regime," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
"Second, we are already moving to cut out their access to the banking system. China is now cooperating. They have frozen all the accounts. This means that Kim Jong Il will not be able to pay his generals," Royce added.
FOX News' Jim Angle, Megyn Kendall contributed to this report.