(CNN) - In a blunt exchange that hit on a major American divide, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, stood by his comments that militia groups involved in a ranch standoff are “domestic terrorists,” while the state’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, replied that he considers them “patriots.”
The first question went to Reid, about his comments that a few hundred people protesting and blocking federal action against rancher Cliven Bundy are “domestic terrorists.”
“What did you mean by that?” co-host Amy Tarkanian asked.
“Just what I said,” Reid responded.
The Democrat later clarified that he was not talking about Bundy himself necessarily, but about outside individuals who traveled to the area in the recent days.
The standoff on the dusty Nevada land has been building for decades, as the federal government has worked to block Bundy’s cattle from grazing on public land. The family has raised cattle in the area for generations, but 20 years ago the land they used was declared off limits in order to protect a desert tortoise.
Bundy has continued grazing anyway, insisting he is within his rights. Last week the issue hit a new hot point when hundreds of self-described militia groups came to Bundy’s land to protest federal action and help him defend his grazing ability.
That’s who Reid described as “domestic terrorists”.
“600 people came armed, they had practiced, they had maneuvered… they set up snipers in strategic locations… they had automatic weapon,” the leading Democrat said Friday. “And they boasted about the fact they put women and children… so they would get hit first.”
“If there were ever an example of people who were domestic violent terrorist wannabes, these are the guys,” Reid concluded.
Heller, sitting inches away from Reid in the television studio, rejected the thought. “What Senator Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots,” he said.
Reid interrupted. “These people think they’re patriots, they’re not,” the majority leader insisted. “If they’re patriots, we’re in very big trouble.”
His Republican colleague jumped back in. “Well, it’s a pretty broad brush,” Heller responded. “You have Boy Scouts out there. You have veterans at the event, you have grandparents at the event. As long as they’re not promoting violence…”
“Promoting violence?” Reid asked. “Sniper rifles…. Grandmothers? Boy Scouts? I hope not.”
The Silver State’s two U.S. senators never raised their voices and the dispute kept a respectful tone. But the disagreement fell across sharp philosophical lines that have defined some of the most passionate feelings in modern American politics. Are militia and anti-government groups a threat to American life? Or is the federal government the problem?
Reid insisted it was the former, that protestors at the ranch were threatening U.S. government workers. And he described ranch owner Bundy as a man who hasn’t paid his taxes and sees Washington as a foreign power.
Heller spoke of the situation as a rancher trying to survive government regulation and facing an “army” sent in by the United States to dislodge his cattle.
“There was no army,” Reid responded.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the primary agency involved, has not indicated what its next move will be in the standoff.