Congressional Republicans joined the White House in standing solidly behind Rove, saying he shouldn't apologize and that he was outlining a philosophical divide between a president who sought to win the war on terrorism by taking the fight to the enemy and Democrats who questioned that approach.
The controversy, fought out in hearings, floor speeches and news conferences Thursday on Capitol Hill, was the latest of several highly contentious battles that have soured the already highly partisan atmosphere.
Earlier this week Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., apologized after being hit with a chorus of attacks from Republicans about comments in which he compared detainee treatment at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the actions of Nazis and other repressive regimes.
Rove, the architect behind President Bush's election victories, on Wednesday night told a gathering of the New York Conservative Party that "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Conservatives, he said, "saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."
He added that groups linked to the Democratic Party made the mistake of calling for "moderation and restraint" after the terrorist attacks.
"It was a slap in the face to the unity that America achieved after Sept. 11, 2001," New York Sen. Charles Schumer wrote in a letter to Rove, co-signed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic senators from Connecticut and New Jersey.
"What Karl was pointing out was that MoveOn.org, a liberal organization, put out a statement after the attacks saying we shouldn't use military as a response to 9/11. We fundamentally disagree," said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, on CBS News' The Early Show. "I find it interesting that Democrats feel they have to rally and defend this organization because they've proven in the actions they've taken in Congress in the days after 9/11 that they supported President Bush's efforts."
The six Democrats asked Rove to "immediately retract the unfortunate and divisive comments." House Democrats, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., wrote a similar letter.
At a news conference, the senators went further, saying Rove should either apologize or resign. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., echoed that stance, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a floor speech that Bush should at the very least exact an apology from his political adviser. "Frankly, he should fire him," Kerry said.
"I don't understand why Democrats who distanced themselves in their actions from MoveOn.org are throwing up such a huff," Bartlett told Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm.