The No. 2 leader in the House on Sunday said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is "the best thing that's happened to the Pentagon in 25 years," sparking a debate with Democrats who said the comments show why the GOP should be voted out of power.

Rumsfeld's leadership of the bloody mission in Iraq has become a divisive issue in the Nov. 7 elections. Many Democrats and a few Republicans are calling for his resignation, but President Bush repeatedly has defended him. So did House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, during an appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

"I think Donald Rumsfeld is the best thing that's happened to the Pentagon in 25 years," Boehner said. "This Pentagon and our military needs a transformation. And I think Donald Rumsfeld's the only man in America who knows where the bodies are buried at the Pentagon, has enough experience to help transform that institution."

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That sparked derision from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who accused Rumsfeld and Bush of sending troops to Iraq without the equipment they needed or a plan to complete the mission.

"Americans concerned by the obvious failures of President Bush's Iraq policy, Secretary Rumsfeld's obvious incompetence, the rapidly increasing numbers of U.S. causalities and the escalating levels of sectarian violence want a new direction in Iraq," she said.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said voters will have their chance to show if they agree with Boehner on Election Day.

"It's true President Bush may not be on the ballot, but people like Boehner and people who support Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush, they're on the ballot," Rangel said on a cable news network. "And that's why we only get two years. You don't have to wait to get the president. This is a referendum on the war and the incompetency of the Bush administration."

Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic effort to win control of the House, quickly e-mailed a statement to reporters objecting to Boehner's comments and including quotes from seven military leaders criticizing the defense secretary.

"Congressman Boehner's defense of Donald Rumsfeld makes it crystal clear that we need change in Washington from the rubber stamp Republican Congress and their blind adherence to President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld's stay the course policy in Iraq," Emanuel's e-mail said.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, appearing with Rangel, said she has confidence in Rumsfeld.

"I think it's a shame to take this complex issue of winning the international war on terror and putting it at the level of whether you like or not like Donald Rumsfeld, and whether you like or don't like President Bush's personalities and the statements that he's made," she said.

Another Republican, Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele, declined to back the Pentagon chief.

"He wouldn't be my secretary of defense," Steele said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And ultimately, that's going to be a decision that the president of the United States makes."