Unable to win their way with votes, outnumbered Democrats used a rarely invoked Senate rule to force a secret session as a way to dramatize their assertions that the Bush administration misused intelligence in the run-up to war in Iraq.
Almost no one was expecting what Sen. Harry Reid, the minority leader, did on the Senate floor Tuesday in the middle of an otherwise typical speech, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.
"I now move that the Senate go into closed session," Reid said, meaning all visitors had to leave and all recording equipment had to be shut off.
"They have repeatedly chosen to protect the Republican administration rather than get to the bottom of what happened and why," Nevada Democrat Reid said, in demanding that the Senate chamber be emptied of everyone but members and a few staffers.
"This is an affront to me personally, it's an affront to our leadership, an affront to the United States of America, and it is wrong," said Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Republicans angrily derided the use of Rule 21 — which dates back to 1795 — as a political stunt but agreed two hours later to have a bipartisan group check on how the Senate Intelligence Committee is coming along in its investigation of prewar intelligence.
"The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," said Frist.
Democrats sought assurances that Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas would complete the second phase of an investigation of the administration's prewar intelligence — as he said he was doing anyway.
A six-member task force — three members from each party — was appointed to review the Intelligence Committee's work and report to their respective leaders by Nov. 14.
Roberts' committee produced a 511-page report in 2004 on flaws in an Iraq intelligence estimate assembled by the country's top analysts in October 2002, and he promised a second phase would look at issues that couldn't be finished in the first year of work.
The committee worked on the second phase of the review, Roberts said, but it has not finished. He blamed Democrats for the delays and said his staff had informed Democratic counterparts on Monday that the committee hoped to complete the second phase next week.
"Now we have this ... stunt 24 hours after their staff was informed that we were moving to closure next week," a clearly angry Roberts told reporters. "If that's not politics, I'm not standing here."
Frist suggested President Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court had "set the Democrats back on their heels. ... This may just be a reaction to that."
But CBS News Capitol Hill correspondent Bob Fuss says with the Alito nomination battle coming up that could lead to a showdown over the filibuster, the Democrats delivered a message they are ready to play hardball.
"Frist keeps talking about trying to change the rules to eliminate the filibuster. He calls that the nuclear option," adds CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer . "What the Democrats did is a little preemptive nuclear strike yesterday saying, 'OK, buddy, you try to do this, let us show what we can do here, we can shut this whole place down.'"
"Welcome to the 2006 mid-term elections," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told CBS Radio News. "They have begun in earnest with one year to go before the election."
When Reid made his move at mid-afternoon, the public was ordered out of the chamber, the lights were dimmed, and the doors were closed.
Under Senate rules, no vote is required when a member demands a secret session.
Some Democrats have accused the White House of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq.
"The Democrats clearly saw an opening with the indictment of 'Scooter' Libby. Blood is in the water and they moved in," says Schieffer.
Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted last Friday for lying during an investigation that touched on the war — the leak of the identity of a CIA official married to a critic of the administration's Iraq policy.
"The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions," Reid said.
Libby resigned from his White House post after being indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury.
Democrats contend that the unmasking of CIA officer Valerie Plame was retribution for her husband, Joseph Wilson's publicly challenging the Bush administration's contention that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from Africa. That claim was part of the White House's justification for going to war.
As Reid spoke, Frist met in the back of the chamber with a half-dozen senior GOP senators, including Roberts. Reid claimed that Republicans have repeatedly rebuffed Democratic pleas for a thorough investigation.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a former majority leader, said a closed session was appropriate for overarching matters like impeachment and chemical weapons — the two topics that last sent the senators into such sessions. Moreover, he said Reid's move violated the Senate's tradition of courtesy and consent.
But there was nothing available in the Senate rules Republicans could use to thwart Reid's maneuver. The Senate is authorized to have secret sessions by the Constitution.
But it was the first time in more than two decades the chamber has been forced into a closed session without bipartisan agreement. The last closed session was in 1999 to consider the impeachment of President Clinton.
The Senate had been considering a budget bill when it went into closed session.