- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

More than a dozen U.S. senators traded in their designer suits and silk ties for bright yellow hard hats and jeans yesterday to hammer nails instead of political issues as they began building houses for two local families.

The 14 Democrats and Republicans and their spouses sawed plywood, hammered nails and carried pieces of sheet rock to erect two houses for Habitat for Humanity in Capitol Heights, Md. They sometimes poked fun at themselves as they worked side by side at the construction site in the 500 block of Mentor Avenue.

By lunchtime, the senators, with help from Habitat for Humanity volunteers, had erected two walls for the new houses.

"You better double-check all those nails I hammered in, but I promise you that those houses won't fall," joked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, yesterday morning as he pounded nails into the frame of one house.

"Our wives will take over after lunch, so they'll go in there and fix what we didn't do right," Mr. Lott said, smiling, as his wife, Tricia, looked on.

Even though the senators are evenly divided along party lines in the Senate, the nine Republicans and five Democrats at the site said yesterday they will work together to help provide affordable housing for low-income families across the country.

Last June, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for its members to partner with Habitat for Humanity International, an ecumenical Christian organization. Under the resolution, each of the 100 senators agreed to build at least one Habitat for Humanity house in his or her home state.

Yesterday's event, dubbed "U.S. Senators Build," was the first in a nationwide series of homebuilding projects in which senators will participate. The houses will be finished by the first week of June.

"This program makes life more meaningful," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, as he finished nailing two boards together. "It makes life worth living when you can help families live their American dream."

The houses under construction on Mentor Avenue will be owned by Penny Williams of Mount Rainier and Helena Spencer of Northeast two single mothers who came out yesterday with their children to watch their dream houses going up. Both families jumped in to help the senators and volunteers with the construction.

"I'm very grateful," said Miss Williams, a mother of three sons. "There just aren't enough words to express how I feel."

Miss Spencer shared the same sentiment. "This is a dream come true." She said she prayed that one day she could give her three sons a safe place to live. Standing next to the newly erected wall of her future home she said, "My prayers have been answered."

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez and his wife, Kitty, joined the others to help with the house-building project. "This isn't just about shelter," Mr. Martinez said. "It's about transforming people's lives."

Most of the senators didn't stick around for the entire day, however. They went back to work on Capitol Hill after a few of them grabbed some lunch in a tent around the corner from the site. They passed their hammers and carpenters' aprons to their spouses, who continued to work on the two homes during much of the afternoon.

Suzanne Craig was one of the wives who stayed to finish what her husband, Sen. Larry Craig, Idaho Republican, started hours earlier. Mrs. Craig said she didn't think twice about helping out.

"I love to do something that's going to help people," Mrs. Craig said as she waited for her husband to hand over his hammer.

"I still have all 10 fingers and don't even have a bruise on me," Mr. Craig playfully boasted to his wife after he finished sawing a couple of boards.

Mr. Craig said he came out to help build the home yesterday because he wanted to give back to the community. His sentiment was much like that of Millard and Linda Fuller, who founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976. Since then, Habitat has built more than 100,000 houses worldwide, providing some 500,000 people with affordable housing.

"If somebody can give up their lives to do this work, then we can surely give several hours of our time to do the same," Mr. Craig said.

Every house the organization builds is sold to a family at no profit with a no-interest loan on terms the family can afford.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, said yesterday's house was her seventh project with Habitat for Humanity. She said she and her husband, Frank Snellings, got involved with the organization through their church.

"You don't have to be skilled in construction to do this," the senator said as she took a break from hammering some nails. "This is a good way to raise awareness of how really easy it is to pick up a hammer and help make people's lives better."

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