GWEN IFILL: Now to two members of the congressional leadership. Robert Menendez of New York is the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Tom Davis of Virginia is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Welcome, gentlemen.
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: I just want to point out I'm from New Jersey. They'll never forgive me.
GWEN IFILL: I apologize for getting that wrong. Congressman Menendez, whose name I also can't get out today, is this a new level of partisanship we're talking about with this discussion about who is responsible for politicizing the war?
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I don't know if it's a new level of partisanship other than that the president starting in my home state of New Jersey and the vice president in Kansas and in other places in this country as they stump for Republican candidates, are making comments in which they are in essence politicizing the war, suggesting that these candidates for office would be better for the national security than Democrats, suggesting that Democrats do not care about the national security of this country.
And as Senator Daschle said, it is outrageous. I mean we have people in the House and Senate who served honorably in the armed forces of the United States, including at times of war.
We have given the president unprecedented powers after September 11, an unprecedented amount of resources to fight terrorism. So to say that they are partisans in this process instead of just patriots is something that the White House should not be doing.
It is not in the national interest of this country to send a message in the world that we will use war as a political tool here in these mid term elections, and that's what the White House is doing.
That's what Karl Rove, the political mentor of the White House and Republicans in Congress has said in various documents, focus on war, forget about the economy and the domestic issues.
GWEN IFILL: The Republican Congressman sitting next to you runs a lot of the campaigns which are going on right now leading up to the mid term elections. Do you agree, Mr. Davis, that this is what the Republicans are trying to do which is trying to use this?
REP. TOM DAVIS: Of course not. I think President Bush is frustrated as we all are with the fact that we passed a homeland security bill in the House in July.
We've been waiting for Senate Democrats to act and pass their version so we can get a conference and give the president the tools he feels he needs to win the war against terrorism.
They've dilly dallied. They are hung up on some side issues over there; have not been able to get a bill out of Senate. And I think the American people are frustrated as is the president with the Democratic Senate's inability to act.
GWEN IFILL: So you say Mr. Davis that it's the Democrats' inability to act -- that they are the ones who are leading the political charge here?
REP. TOM DAVIS: Absolutely. I think in this particular case, there's a frustration, this should be a nonpolitical issue. This should be an issue where we join together.
And we have honest differences of opinion over maybe the best way to fight the war on terrorism, which what is the president's remarks were attuned to, not the war in Iraq.
And the fact that they have just been unable through stumbling and bumbling to get a bill out of the Senate when we passed it in July. Earlier they wanted to have this through by 9/11, it's clear now they may not get it out by October 1st.
And the president needs these tools now, so there's a great frustration. We haven't politicized it, but I think the American people need to understand that every day that goes by without setting up this new department, moving out these contracts to contractors so that they can be able to fight the war on terrorism, is a day we're at risk.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, let me get Mr. Menendez back in here. Where does partisan debate end here, and policy debate begin? Or the other way around?
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, my colleague Mr. Davis and the White House take the view that when you have serious questions that you raise, you're being unpatriotic.
And the greatest deliberative body in the world, the reason we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world is that in fact this is in essence, my Republican colleagues always talk about the marketplace, well, the House of Representatives is the marketplace of ideas, as is the United States Senate.
And when you raise questions, for example, there are serious questions on homeland security about how you best ensure information sharing, how do you ensure assistance to first responders in our communities.
What is the role of some of the agencies we're throwing into the new Homeland Security Department, when they have parts of their missions are non-security.
How do we preserve those roles? So those are legitimate questions of debate. And to suggest that Democrats are less interested in the national security because you raise legitimate issues or when we talk about Iraq, that we say, well, what is the end game after Saddam Hussein?
What is the post-Iraq plans for the United States? Is this going to cost us $200 billion? Are we going alone? How many lives will we lose? What will it cost us? And what is going to happen to the rest of that part of the world?
Those are legitimate issues that have to be debated and discussed and have committee hearings on, and then we can have the votes that are necessary.
But at the rate that we're going, any question that is raised, this administration and Republicans basically say, you know, you don't want to protect the United States, you're not interested in the national security being partisan, that's the nature of a legislative deliberative body.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Davis, are you suggesting then that as some other Republicans have said, including the Republican leader of the Senate today, that the Democrats are fighting the wrong enemy here -- that they should just stop raising these questions and sign off on whatever the president asks?
REP. TOM DAVIS: Of course not. Look, there are, I think, within our conference, within the Democratic conferences legitimate concerns about what we do best to fight terrorism, what we do best in Iraq. And I think we ought to have a full debate.
But the point is, on the homeland security bill, we passed a bill in the House in July. They've had August, they've had September. They moved a number of other bills, some special interest bills, ahead of that -- felt they had higher priority.
And every day that goes by now that they haven't passed a bill and we can't meet with them to iron out our policy differences, something we're eagerly awaiting to do, are days where we're losing this war on terrorism.
I think it's a fundamental issue we need to be concerned about with its priority. And I don't question their patriotism. There are honest differences of opinion. In fact, sometimes I disagree with myself once I get it all explained to me. But the fact is they haven't made it a priority over there, and time is running out and we need a bill out of Senate.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Menendez, Al Gore earlier this week said that the Republicans -- the White House is essentially rushing to judgment in deciding to step in and soliciting world action on Iraq. Do you think that Mr. Gore could be considered guilty of politicizing the war?
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: No, I think that he raises very serious questions, questions I raised with the secretary of state when he appeared before the International Relations Committee, on which I sit, you know, I asked the secretary, you recited everything that Iraq has done wrong, but those things we know have existed for sometime now.
To recite a litany of the last two years is fine, but what is the clear compelling imminent damage to the United States? What is your plan for a post-Saddam Iraq?
We say that regime change is the ultimate desire of this administration, well, then what is to come afterwards -- and how are we responsible for it? And what type of investment will we make?
So for former Vice President Gore to make those comments and to say that this rush to judgment, when there is an absence of proof that there is any imminent or clear and present danger to the United States, that everything that the administration is talking about has existed since the president took office, and there's nothing special of the moment, I think is a legitimate question to raise as to why must we do this now, why can we not build the international coalition that we will need so that American lives alone will not be at stake and American resources alone will not be at stake, especially in an economy -- we're going to need a better economy than we have right now to be able to pay for homeland security and for the national defense of this country, whether it be Iraq or pursuing al-Qaida or any other place in the world.
And those issues have to be debated as well, the domestic issues that will fuel that economy.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Davis, with the mid term elections just about six weeks away, what's your response to the talk that Republicans are really interested in having a debate about the war even if it's a debate about whether the war is being politicized or not, because as long as you're talking about the war and not about the economy, you have the upper hand?
REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, I think that the other issues don't go away just because we have this discussion about the war with Iraq and homeland security.
Homeland security, we could have dispensed with this issue two months ago had the Senate Democrats been willing to step up to the plate and pass the legislation. It's they who have dallied, not us, that keep this in the forefront and I think leave our frustration level high. On Iraq, it was the Democrats basically who said we need Congress involved.
I happen to think they're right and I think we need a meaningful debate on this. The Senate and House Democratic leadership has agreed to have this debate before the election. This could be the issue of the decade.
I think the American public needs to know where their elected officials stand. But I want to make one thing clear. We're not questioning anybody's patriotism no matter how they come down on this issue. Bob Menendez and I may disagree, but he is a patriotic American, he's a credit to the Congress, his voice is useful in this debate.
GWEN IFILL: Let me interrupt you for a second. So when the president says that the Senate is not interested in the security of the American people, that's not questioning anyone's patriotism?
REP. TOM DAVIS: That's not what he said. What he said is they were more interested in helping special interests in Washington than they were getting this bill through.
And by that he meant that there are some federal unions that are holding up this bill with some particular amendments that have been offered that have tied up debate in the Senate and that they ought to get those issues dispensed with, wherever they come down and send it to conference so we can iron them out, and that that has held up debate. And he thinks that that's an unfortunate decision by Senate Democrats.
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: I really think the president made a very broad statement and he made it purposely so to try to paint Democrats in this country as not being interested in the national security of the United States to focus this entire debate simply on the questions of war and security -- and not to deal with some of the other issues that are crucial.
When we talk about homeland security, how to have information sharing, whether we extend the deadlines on bomb detection devices at airports, how do you ensure that in fact we help our first responders -- those are legitimate issues of debate.
They will be debated in the Senate. But to say that a lack of action because those issues are not being debated is not fair, as it is not fair to come to New Jersey and simply say this candidate will be better for the security of the United States.
GWEN IFILL: We're going to have to leave it -
REP. TOM DAVIS: The fact is they put a lot of other issues ahead of this issue over in the Senate that had nothing to do with this.
GWEN IFILL: We're out of time. Tom Davis of Virginia, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, thank you very much for joining us.