Dispute over New York Islamic center flares into midterm campaign issue

Lawmakers set aside debate over the economy Sunday to argue over President Obama’s statement supporting the building of a mosque overlooking Ground Zero and whether voters will care about it in November.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" to talk about the upcoming election, was asked for his personal view on whether the mosque should be built in New York.

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“It would be wrong to politicize the issue,” he said, adding that the decision should be “up to the people of New York” on where the Islamic center should be built.

House Republican Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) took issue with Van Hollen’s statement, saying Obama made it a political issue by commenting on it.

“If you listen to what he first said, he brought up the exact location and said he supported it,” McCarthy said.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Republicans were being hypocritical about their support for Constitutional principles.

“We see an awful lot of Republicans going out and saying, ‘We got to respect the Constitution,’” Kaine said. “That means we have to respect it. We can’t tarnish people’s first amendment rights.”

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the president is displaying a “condensation toward Americans.”

“It tells you that he has a very disdainful view of the American people,” Gillespie said of Obama’s remarks about the mosque. “And I think that’s one of the reasons his favorability ratings have come down, not just his job approval rating.”

Obama said Friday that Muslims shouldn’t be forbidden from building a mosque on account of where it’s located.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” he said at a dinner celebrating the Islamic holy month. “And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America."

On his trip to the Gulf on Saturday, Obama said that his statement didn't express support for the “wisdom” of building a mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, but rather the right the group has to build it.

"My intention was simply to let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country we treat everybody equally and in accordance with the law, regardless of race, regardless of religion," he said.

White House spokesman Bill Burton later said the president wasn’t backing off his earlier remarks.

"The World Trade Center site is hallowed ground, where 3,000 Americans — Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims — were the victims of a cold-blooded massacre. We are still at war with the small band of terrorists who planned and executed that attack,” he told reporters. “But that does not give government the right to deny law-abiding Americans of one faith the same rights you would accord anyone else."

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who appeared on CNN before the congressional leaders, said that pushback to building the Islamic center is misinformed because the religious structure would not be constructed at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

“Ground Zero is hallowed ground,” he said. “Two blocks away, first of all, is not hallowed ground.”


Nadler noted that mosques already in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon, which took at direct hit on 9/11, have raised few eyebrows.

“No one objects to them,” he said, adding that “al Qaeda attacked us, Islam did not attack us.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who had quickly lashed out Friday at Obama's comments from the Ramadan dinner, said he supported freedom of religion but said that the Muslim community needed to show sensitivity.

"And if the imam and the Muslim leadership in that community is so intent on building bridges, then they should voluntarily move the mosque away from Ground Zero and move it whether it's uptown or somewhere else, but move it away from that area, the same as the pope directed the Carmelite nuns to move a convent away from Auschwitz," King said. "This is such a raw wound and they are just pouring salt into it. And that's my point."

King also said he disagreed with Nadler on the nature of the attack, saying "the attack was carried out in the name of Islam." He said the site might be two blocks away from where the Twin Towers stood, but parts of the jets hit the building in question.

"Governor Paterson suggested that he would make state land available in New York for the construction of the mosque, and that's what I would have — one way to build a bridge is to sit down and get a consensus as to where it would be acceptable," King said. "Because we do need mosques."

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said on "Fox News Sunday" that he believes the mosque will be a campaign issue in the fall.

"It demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself, seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, adding that he didn't see it as a freedom of religion issue. "I think that's one of the reasons why people are so frustrated."

Voters "sense that they’re being lectured to, not listened to" by Democrats, he said. "The American people will render their verdict."

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the issue will fade as the election approaches.

"I think the overriding issue remains the economy,” he said. "That issue will be the most dominant one to go forward into the election."

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) echoed Reed’s belief that the economy would remain voters’ top concern.

“I don’t know if it’s good or bad politics,” Rendell said on CBS’s Face The Nation on Sunday. “But I can’t imagine that any American, given the challenges facing this country, is going to vote based on what [Obama] said about the mosque.

“The mosque is an unfortunate situation, but we do have a right to practice our religion freely wherever we choose. Rights are not subject to popular vote or majority vote,” he said.

And with November creeping ever closer, debate over the mosque eventually gave way to a blame game over which party was more responsible for wrecking the economy.

“[Republicans] are counting on the fact that the American people are somehow going to have a bout of collective amnesia come these elections because we all know in George Bush’s last day in office we saw this country losing 700,000 jobs a month,” Van Hollen said on CNN.

McCarthy countered, saying the Democrats have done little to improve that picture since taking control of Congress and the White House.

“This is the first Congress since the Depression for the entire two years where unemployment has been above 9 percent,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.

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