Harry Reid joins critics of Ground Zero mosque
WASHINGTON -- The Senate's senior Democrat broke with President Obama yesterday over the proposed Muslim cultural center and mosque in New York City, with Sen. Harry Reid saying it should be built elsewhere.
The project, planned near ground zero, has emerged as an emotional issue 2 1/2 months before congressional elections in which Republicans are trying to take back control of Congress from Obama's fellow Democrats. Reid is in a tight contest for re-election against a very conservative Republican challenger.
"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
Including Reid, at least three Democrats broke from the White House -- and party insiders expected more to follow suit, primarily moderates in conservative places. Several House Republican candidates issued statements demanding that their Democratic opponents say where they stand on the issue.
The project's backers vowed to press ahead with their plans and denied a report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz that they will scrap the $100 million project, which has generated fierce debate.
Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of the building where the Cordoba House would be located, said a Haaretz report that the center would be relocated farther from ground zero, was false.
"Everything is on track, and we are moving forward with the location," said El-Gamal, chief executive of Soho Properties, which owns the building.
Haaretz reported that leaders agreed to abandon the site to prevent an escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment.
The proposal, announced this spring, has caused an uproar among many New Yorkers who feel the location of the center is insensitive to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11.
On Friday, the debate over the construction of the Muslim center intensified when President Obama said he supported the right of Muslims to build there.
A day later, amid a political backlash, Obama said he was not commenting on "the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there." Instead, he said he was "commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who opposes the mosque project, said yesterday that the White House softened Obama's original comments because it probably heard "pushback" from other Democrats. He said Obama was "clearly" taking a side on the issue, no matter what he claims.
"Everyone says as far as I know that the Muslim community has the right to build a mosque. The whole question is whether they should or not," he said.