Senate Democrats pick fight over Iraq

They force secret session to assail Bush, presaging battle over court pick


WASHINGTON -- Democrats forced the Republican-controlled Senate into a rare secret session yesterday to criticize President Bush's use of intelligence in the prelude to the war in Iraq, exposing deep partisan tensions as senators prepare to do battle over Bush's latest Supreme Court pick.

Seeking to shine an unflattering spotlight on Bush after a top White House aide was indicted in the CIA leak investigation, Democrats essentially brought the Senate to a halt by demanding a closed session. They accused the president of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq and faulted Republican leaders for failing to demand answers about the administration's flawed claims.

"Time and again, this Republican-controlled Congress has consistently chosen to put its political interests ahead of our national security," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. "They have repeatedly chosen to protect the Republican administration rather than get to the bottom of what happened and why."

The move was a brash effort by Democrats to flex their muscles in advance of the coming fight over Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., Bush's new court nominee, and to rob the president of a chance to regain his political momentum.

The shutdown swept aside, at least temporarily, talk of whether Democrats will seek to block Alito through a filibuster and discussion of a plan Bush addressed during a morning appearance at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to prepare the nation for a possible flu pandemic.

The Senate "has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," said Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, who called the surprise maneuver a slap in the face for a chamber that runs on genteel negotiations. Democrats, he said, "use scare tactics. They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas."

Frist speculated that Democrats staged what he called a "stunt" in part to divert attention from Bush's nomination of Alito, "a great man."

"That, I think, set the Democrats back on their heels a little bit [during] the last 24 hours, as they've talked about a filibuster and him being out of the mainstream," Frist said. "Part of this may be a reaction just to that."

The White House declined to comment on the abrupt Senate shutdown.

It took a little more than two hours for Frist and Reid to forge an agreement that ended the episode by naming a bipartisan group of six senators to report on progress by the Senate Intelligence Committee in evaluating prewar intelligence.

The flap signaled how bitter relations between the parties have become as Bush seeks to recover from a rough period by winning congressional approval for key elements of his agenda, including Alito's confirmation.

Democratic strategists said privately that Reid's gambit was designed to send a message that their party, though lacking a majority, can influence the Senate and make life difficult for Bush and Republicans in Congress.

"This portends what you'll see with Alito, the no-holds-barred nature of it," a former senior Democratic leadership aide said.

The flap also revived a theme of past Senate judicial battles, the Republican argument that Democrats are the party of "no."

"It's clear from this political stunt that Senate Democrats will go to extraordinary and unprecedented measures to obstruct the business of the American people," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a statement that denounced Democratic "tantrums."

"Because the Democrats have no ideas or agenda of their own, they've made an awkward attempt at changing the subject."

Difficult choices

Democrats are facing difficult choices about how to handle Alito's nomination.

Liberal interest groups are pressing for an aggressive effort to reject the nomination of Alito, a conservative federal appeals court judge who they fear will replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's moderating swing vote on critical issues with a hard-right tack. Alito has supported restrictions on abortion rights and has narrowly interpreted some civil rights laws.

"The right is rejoicing over the selection of a jurist whose record reflects hostility to laws promoting equality and fairness for women, minorities and the disabled," said Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, which raises money to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. "With Alito on the Supreme Court in place of Sandra Day O'Connor, future attempts to curtail reproductive freedom will find a receptive and eager audience."

Democrats, with 45 votes in the Senate, do not have the numbers to defeat the nomination and might lack the 41 votes they would need to sustain a filibuster and block a final vote on Alito.

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