GOP Leaders Pound Durbin

Majority Continues Call for Apology

Posted June 20, 2005 at 6:42pm

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered unwavering support for embattled Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday, even as Republicans ratcheted up their calls for Durbin to apologize for comments suggesting that U.S. interrogation procedures mirrored those employed by Nazis and other infamous regimes.

“He has been my friend for 23 years and nothing is going to change,” Reid said in an interview. “I support Sen. Durbin 100 percent.”

All six members of the Senate Republican leadership sent a letter to Reid Monday night, calling on him to repudiate Durbin’s comments. In the two-page letter, the GOP leaders said such a statement “tarnish[es] the U.S. Senate as an institution.”

Reid is the latest and most senior of a handful of Democrats who have explicitly expressed support for Durbin in the wake of his controversial comments.

For a solid week, Durbin has been facing intense criticism for taking the Senate floor last Tuesday and criticizing the treatment of prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings,” said Durbin, referring to an FBI report investigating the questioning of prisoners.

Durbin sought to clarify his comments on Friday, but in doing so also vowed to “speak out when I disagree with this administration.”

“I have learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood,” Durbin said in a statement released by his office. “I sincerely regret if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings: Our soldiers around the world and their families at home deserve our respect, admiration and total support.”

However, Durbin’s explanation rang hollow for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who released a statement on Saturday that said he was “extremely disappointed” by Durbin’s comments. Frist then asked him to “provide an appropriate apology” and also urged Reid and other Democratic leaders to “call on Senator Durbin to formally apologize.”

“Shameful does not begin to describe this heinous slander against our country, and the brave men and women risking their lives every day to defend it,” Frist said.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Frist’s sentiment in an interview on Monday.

“I am still waiting for Democratic Senators to call upon Sen. Durbin to make a complete apology,” said McConnell, hours before the GOP leadership the joint letter to Reid. “Not what he did Friday, but a complete apology.”

Joe Shoemaker, Durbin’s spokesman, said the Illinois Democrat had no plans to change the position he outlined in his Friday statement.

“Sen. Durbin clarified his remarks on Friday, and he stands by that statement,” Shoemaker said. “He expressed sincere regret and we will leave it at that.”

Republican campaign officials and Congressional aides said they would continue to highlight Durbin’s remarks as well as other controversial comments made by Democrats. McConnell said that if Democrats did not seek to distance themselves from the comments, he predicted it would be “a significant issue” in the 2006 Senate campaign.

A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the organization is using Durbin’s remarks as part of a broader effort to “link the Democratic leadership to extreme liberal interest groups.” Brian Nick of the NRSC said it is likely Durbin’s comments would also be used in a fundraising letter.

The Republican National Committee is planning to release a Web video later this week highlighting the Democrat’s “wild-eyed rhetoric,” said Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokeswoman.

Across the Capitol, Congressional Republicans have been just as aggressive as their Senate counterparts in criticizing Democrats.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Monday rebuked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for calling the Iraq war “a grotesque mistake” in a House floor speech late last week.

“Leader Pelosi and the Democratic leadership should support our troops instead of spreading inflammatory statements,” Hastert said.

Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s spokesman, said Congressional Republicans will continue to “respond to outrageous comments made by Democrats because they need to understand we will not sit idly by and let them try to define the media landscape.”

“The American people deserve to understand what Democratic leaders are saying and thinking and these statements reflect their liberal, left-wing agenda,” Bonjean said.

But Reid charged that Republicans are trying to shift the focus away from President Bush’s sagging approval rating and people’s frustration with the GOP stewardship of Congress.

“The American people really have it up to here with what the president is doing and not doing and what the Republican-led Congress is doing,” Reid said at a news conference on Monday.

And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, dismissed McConnell’s suggestion that Durbin’s comments will hurt Democrats next year.

“They are looking for any distraction to avoid the issues that people care about,” Schumer said.

Schumer said the Democratic Senators were behind Durbin “in terms of his being a person who said what he thought.

“We believe the real issues that affect people are gas prices and education and healthcare and how to straighten out our foreign policy problems,” Schumer. “Why they jump on things like this, whether you agree or disagree, is because they want diversions.”