Leading Democrat Harry Reid has called Chinese President Hu Jintao "a dictator" during a television interview before quickly backtracking on his comment.
The Senate majority leader made the accusation during an outspoken interview given to a Nevada station.
He said: "I'm going to go back to Washington tomorrow to meet with the president of China. He is a dictator. He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have."
Realising the strength of his statement, Mr Reid immediately appeared to backtrack, saying: "Maybe I shouldn't have said 'dictator''.
Mr Reid later posed with the Chinese President and shook his hand in front of the assorted media before their meeting on Capitol Hill.
Mr Hu's visit to the US has prompted other politician's to speak out about China's human rights record.
In an interview with CNN, Californian Republican Dana Rohrabacher labelled China as a "gangster regime that murders their own people."