US Vice President Dick Cheney clashed earlier this week with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, using an obscenity in a heated exchange on the Senate floor after members gathered in the chamber for their annual photograph.
The outburst, the gist of which was confirmed by aides to Leahy, grew out of the vice president's apparent irritation over the senator's accusations of profiteering by Halliburton, the oil services company that Cheney once ran. Democrats have accused the vice president of helping the company win lucrative contracts.
The confrontation, which took place on Tuesday, was yet another sign of deteriorating relations between Republicans and Democrats in the capital. News of it consumed the Capitol on Thursday afternoon, hours after the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, delivered a speech in which he implored Republicans and Democrats to work together to improve relations and "end the cycle of partisan retaliation."
Congressional aides said the argument occurred just after the photograph was taken. Leahy was mingling on the Republican side of the aisle, they said, when he spotted the vice president, who was included in the picture because of his role as president of the Senate.
Leahy approached Cheney to chat, the aides said. When Cheney recoiled, Leahy made a jocular remark, on the order of, "What, so you won't talk with Democrats?"
The vice president is said to have replied that he did not appreciate Leahy's personal attacks on him. Leahy, in turn, told Cheney he did not appreciate being called "a bad Catholic" -- a reference to Republican accusations that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were "anti-Catholic" because they refused to confirm a judicial nominee, William Pryor, who opposed abortion. Leahy is the senior Democrat on the panel.
At that point, the aides said, Cheney turned and stalked away, but not before responding with either the words "fuck you" or "fuck yourself."
A spokesman for the vice president, Kevin Kellums, said, "That doesn't sound like language the vice president would use, but there was a frank exchange of views."
A spokesman for Leahy, David Carle, recounted the senator as saying: "I think he was just having a bad day. I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor."
Other lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, were not particularly shocked, given the state of relations between the two parties. Word of the exchange leaked out in the Senate on Thursday afternoon, after Leahy told some of his Senate colleagues about it.
Before long, it had raced through the Capitol.
While some Democrats expressed chagrin at Cheney's language, Republicans defended him.
"The vice president is a tough human being, and he's very honest, and his integrity is his most cherished attribute," said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. "I don't blame anybody for standing up for their own integrity."
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said, "I think the vice president said what he meant to say and felt better after he said it."
Earlier in the day, Daschle called reporters into his office to say that he had been thinking for some time about how to improve relations between the two parties. In his speech, he said he wanted to see the Senate "create more opportunities to increase cross-party understanding."