President Obama's staunchest ally in the Senate broke with the president today over the controversial Islamic center planned for a site near Ground Zero, and said he is opposed to its construction.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada issued a statement saying, "The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built some place else."
Reid's comments came just days after Obama told a White House gathering that Muslims had a right to build the mosque, and Republicans vowed to make the president's stand an issue in the November elections.
Reid, who is facing a difficult election in his home state of Nevada, was the first candidate to feel the heat. He was prompted to take a position on the contentious issue after his Republican opponent challenged him to stand with the president or oppose the unpopular community center planned to be built two blocks from where Islamic militants destroyed the Twin Towers.
"As the Majority Leader, Harry Reid is usually President Obama's mouthpiece in the U.S. Senate, and yet he remains silent on this issue," read a statement issued today by Reid's Republican challenger Sharron Angle. "Reid has a responsibility to stand up and say no to the mosque at Ground Zero or once again side with President Obama, this time against the families of 9/11 victims. America is waiting."
The White House said today that Obama's comments on the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" were not driven by politics.
The president's statement on Friday that Muslims have a right to build an Islamic center two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attack immediately prompted outraged reactions. The next day, Obama appeared to soften his stance by saying that he questioned the wisdom of the building the center so close to Ground Zero.
Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said today that the presidential marks were not guided by politics. Burton said Obama "felt it was his obligation as president to address this." Obama ignored shouted questions today after a news conference on the economy in Wisconsin.
Having the president comment on the proposed Islamic center, however, has turned it into a national political issue.
One of the few voices of support for the president came from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who told a news conference today that he "applauded Obama" for his remarks.
"If we shut down a mosque two blocks away from where freedom was attacked, I think it would be a sad day for America," Bloomberg said.
The mayor told a story of being out at dinner with his girfriend this weekend when "a guy with two tours in Afghanistan" approached the mayor's table to say "You know, that's why we're fighting over there."
Obama could have done without one voice supporting the mosque. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, told WABC radio, Muslims "have to build everywhere."
Republicans had been quick to seize on the issue. By Sunday morning it had become a Republican talking point and by that afternoon they had launched a nationwide campaign strategy to get Democrats to issue statements about whether they opposed the mosque or stood with the president.
Republicans Make Ground Zero Mosque Campaign Issue
"It demonstrates that Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America. And I think that's one of the reasons people are so frustrated," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on "Fox News Sunday," who predicted it would become an election issue.
Obama's fellow Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., also appeared to disagree with the president's sentiments. Clyburn, who is the House majority whip, said "calling for tolerance on the part of all its people is a presidential act worth exercising."
He said, however, that another principle also applies.
"We have what we call in this country 'community standards,' and community standards ought to be left up to the community," Clyburn said. "The decision on permitting for any building, be it a mosque or a church, or whatever may be a place of worship, or be it a grocery store or a liquor store ? those things are left up to community standards and I think in this instances, that's what the president has made clear."