Jewish groups slam Senator's remarks on Republicans, Nazis
WASHINGTON - A pair of Jewish groups accused the longest-serving senator of making an outrageous and reprehensible comparison between Adolf Hitler's Nazis and a plan by the Senate's majority party to change a venerable Senate practice to quash opposition.
Sen. Robert Byrd's spokesman, Tom Gavin, denied that the senator had compared Republicans to Hitler. He said the reference to Nazis in a Senate speech on Tuesday was meant to underscore that the past should not be ignored.
"Terrible chapters of history ought never be repeated," Gavin said. "All one needs to do is to look at history to see how dangerous it is to curb the rights of the minority."
Byrd, a member of the minority Democrats, was speaking in opposition to threats by the Republican majority leader to force through a rule banning use of the filibuster, a parliamentary ploy by which the minority can stall legislation, against President George W. Bush's nominations to federal court judgeships.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Wednesday that Byrd's remarks showed "a profound lack of understanding as to who Hitler was," and the senator should apologize to the American people.
"It is hideous, outrageous and offensive for Senator Byrd to suggest that the Republican Party's tactics could in any way resemble those of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party," Foxman said.
In his comments Tuesday, Byrd defended the right that senators have to use filibusters, procedural delays of unlimited debate that can kill an item unless 60 of the 100 senators vote to move ahead.
Byrd cited Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s by, in part, pushing legislation through the German parliament that seemed to legitimize his ascension.
"We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men," Byrd said. "But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends."
Byrd then quoted historian Alan Bullock, saying Hitler "turned the law inside out and made illegality legal."
Byrd added, "That is what the nuclear option seeks to do."
The nuclear option is the Democrats' nickname for the proposal to end filibusters of judicial nominations.
The back and forth was the latest twist in the battle over Senate Republican efforts to free 10 Bush-nominated judges that the chamber's minority Democrats have blocked. The Senate has confirmed 204 others.
The first criticism of Byrd came Wednesday when Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, issued a written statement.
"With his knowledge of history and his own personal background as a KKK member, he should be ashamed for implying that his political opponents are using Nazi tactics," Brooks said.
Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization, as a young man and has repeatedly apologized for it. Now 87 and the Senate's longest-serving member with 47 years' service, he prides himself on his knowledge of history and makes historical references frequently during debates.
Brooks also attacked as "disgusting" Byrd's remark that "some in the Senate are ready to callously incinerate" senators' rights to filibuster. The comment came amid several references by Byrd to the "nuclear option."
"There is no excuse for raising the specter of the Holocaust crematoria in a discussion of the Senate filibuster," Brooks said. "That kind of political heavy-handedness is inappropriate and reprehensible."
Byrd is a long-standing defender of the chamber's rules and traditions, many of which help the Senate's minority party.