WASHINGTON -- The head of the Republican Senate campaign committee likened the Democratic Party to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ruling party yesterday, abruptly ending the partisan truce over the gulf war.
The remarks by Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, were the clearest sign yet that Republicans will try to punish Democrats over the war issue in the 1992 campaign.
Mr. Gramm, addressing a small but receptive audience of Young Republicans, accused Democrats of undercutting President Bush's leadership and trying to change the subject to keep Republicans from enjoying the political spoils of the U.S.-led military triumph.
"As you know, the Baath Party in Iraq and the Democratic Party in the United States are both working on their domestic agendas to make us forget the war," said Mr. Gramm, whose office had told reporters in advance that the senator planned to make a splash on the war issue.
His comment produced an angry response from Democrats, who accused him of trying to wreck the spirit of national unity that prevailed during the six-week Mideast conflict.
National Democratic Chairman Ronald H. Brown called the comparison between Democrats and Mr. Hussein's party "an absurd comment. . . . This is not a time for partisan divisive discussion of the kind Senator Gramm evidently wants to engage in."
An aide to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley declined to respond. Mr. Foley, in remarks earlier to reporters, said he did not think Republican efforts to play politics with the war would succeed.
"Democrats have a strong record to defend in defense, and we're not at all defensive about our record," Mr. Foley said, noting that everything from the Reagan administration's military buildup of the 1980s to Mr. Bush's request to use force against Iraq could not have made it through Congress without some Democratic support.
But Mr. Gramm, in launching his attack on Mr. Foley and other Democratic leaders for having opposed the administration's request to use force against Iraq, predicted that the Jan. 12 vote would come back to haunt Democrats in the 1992 elections.
"Why is this vote to undercut the president and to deny him the ability to lead the world so damaging to Democrats?" the senator asked rhetorically. "Because it fits a pattern that is 20 years old . . . the pattern of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis."
Democrats, he added, "voted to position themselves to the left of the United Nations. Now, I believe that that is an issue."
Mr. Gramm, a one-time Democrat who switched parties in 1982, asserted that "in all probability, Saddam Hussein would be in Saudi Arabia this afternoon" if Republicans had not won the last three presidential elections.
He said it was no longer "in the best interests of the United States of America" for Democrats to retain their majority in Congress because Republicans "have a clearer vision than the Democrats . . . a vision that represents the best angels of the American nature."
Later, in remarks to reporters, Mr. Gramm claimed to have polling data showing that Democratic senators up for re-election next year are being hurt by their votes against the gulf resolution.
He cited four Southern Democrats: Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia, Terry Sanford of North Carolina and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.
"Clearly, many Democrats are in a free fall because of that vote," Mr. Gramm said.