WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats frustrated by failed battles against Republicans to change Iraq war policy are instead taking on one of the war's staunchest supporters — syndicated, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Democrats took to the Senate floor Monday to demand an apology from Limbaugh for supposedly saying that troops who oppose the Iraq war are "phony soldiers." Limbaugh has vehemently denied a wholesale attack on antiwar servicemen and women.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that Democratic leaders have drafted a letter to Mark Mays, president of Clear Channel, the parent company of Limbaugh's broadcast, calling on the network "to publicly repudiate these comments that call into question ('antiwar soldiers') service and sacrifice, and ask Mr. Limbaugh to apologize for his comments."
"Rush Limbaugh took it upon himself to attack the courage and character of those fighting and dying for him and for all of us. Rush Limbaugh got himself a deferment from serving when he was a young man. He never served in uniform. He never saw in person the extreme difficulty of maintaining peace in a foreign country engaged in a civil war. He never saw a person in combat. Yet, that he thinks his opinion on the war is worth more than those who have been on the front lines," Reid said.
"Rush Limbaugh owes the men and women of our armed forces an apology," he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, then followed Reid, saying: "Maybe he was just high on his drugs. I don't know." In 2003, Limbaugh admitted a dependency on pain medication, but three years later reached a plea deal that cleared him of prescription shopping for Oxycontin.
In the House, Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is running for the open Senate seat in his state, has authored a resolution condemning the host. Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has not decided whether or not he'll bring it up for a vote, his staff told FOX News.
Limbaugh said Monday that efforts by Reid and others to condemn him are merely an effort to divert attention from Democratic failures to change the course of the Iraq war. He added that his critics know they are misrepresenting his comments but are charging forward anyway.
"This is not just the anatomy of a smear. There's much more going on with this than just smearing me. There is an attempt, I think, as they have done throughout my career, to discredit me," Limbaugh said on his radio show.
"These people have had three, four days now to learn the truth about this, and they no doubt know the truth, which doesn't matter. What they are trying to do is flood a false story into the 'drive-by media' and have that survive and suffice as the evidence and as the story of what I said when it wasn't."
A literal reading of the Sept. 26 show transcript shows that the controversial host did not in fact say that soldiers opposing the war are "phony," but his remarks have left confusion as to whom he is referring when he used the phrase.
The offense came up when a caller named Mike, who said he is currently serving in the Army, described his anger about talk of a pullout from Iraq. Limbaugh readily agrees, according to the recorded exchange:
CALLER 2 (Mike): ...What's really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.
LIMBAUGH: The phony soldiers.
CALLER 2: The phony soldiers. If you talk to a real soldier, they are proud to serve. They want to be over in Iraq. They understand their sacrifice, and they're willing to sacrifice for their country.
Limbaugh has since said on his show that he was referring only to one soldier: disgraced, convicted former Army soldier-turned-antiwar-activist Jesse Macbeth. Macbeth falsely claimed to have participated in war crimes in Iraq and received a Purple Heart, but in reality, he was discharged after only 44 days of service, never placing a foot in Iraq. Macbeth was sentenced to five months in prison for fraudulently collecting more than $10,000 in benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The problem with the exchange is that Limbaugh refers to multiple "soldiers." He gets to a conversation about Macbeth about two minutes after referring to "phony soldiers." Did he have Macbeth in mind when he said it? Calls to the Limbaugh studio, for now, have gone unanswered.
In subsequent radio shows, Limbaugh has attempted to clarify his position, but he has only muddied the waters. On Thursday, he referenced the segment, but he edited out a portion of it, prompting outrage from the liberal media watchdog Media Matters, which has been driving this latest controversy. The edited section has nothing related in it, but the timing is problematic for Limbaugh. In edited form, the discussion of Macbeth comes much more quickly after the reference to "phony soldiers."
"He must have known he screwed up, or he wouldn't have edited the script," Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau told FOX News.
On his Friday show, Limbaugh also referred to Scott Thomas in a discussion of "phony soldiers." Thomas was caught falsifying accounts of war atrocities in The New Republic magazine. In the next breath, Limbaugh, in his usual combative style, then took aim at Rep. John Murtha, a Vietnam war veteran and strong antiwar politician who on Friday was ordered to give a deposition in a defamation case against him for suggesting that U.S. Marines were involved in "cold-blooded murder and war crimes" in Iraq.
"How about Jack Murtha blanketly accepting the notion that Marines at Haditha engaged in wanton murder of innocent children and civilians?" Limbaugh asked.
Mollineau said the Murtha reference proves that Democratic interpretations of Limbaugh's comments are correct.
"I think it proves our point that he was talking about more than one person when he brought up Jack Murtha," he said.
In any case, Reid is not likely to get the apology he seeks. On Monday, Limbaugh referred to "dingy Harry," and a story ABC did on phony soldiers a week ago, telling listeners, "I have just finished an interview with Clarence Thomas talking about the lies and stuff spread about him during his confirmation hearings, and now I, little old private citizen, Rush Limbaugh, the subject of Senate action, the subject today of House of Representatives action, all based on a purposely told lie, which they know is a lie, and yet they are persisting in this."
However, what Limbaugh claims to be perpetuation of a lie could be gaining traction.
On Tuesday, a veterans group opposed to the Iraq war said it will launch a television ad campaign lambasting Limbaugh. It will feature a Purple Heart recipient who was injured while serving in Iraq.
North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones told FOX News late Monday that Limbaugh "went too far," and that he will sign on to Udall's resolution on Tuesday morning. Jones is one of two Republican House members who have consistently supported antiwar legislation.
"The men and women who have been to war in Iraq — those speaking out, they've been there, they should be respected and whether you agree or not with what they are saying, at least respect and not make such statements as (Limbaugh) had made," Jones said.
Udall's resolution on Monday evening had the co-sponsorship of a number of liberal Democratic members, including presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Udall said he remains optimistic his resolution will get a vote.
FOX News' Chad Pergram and Molly Hooper contributed to this report.