- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

The exposure of at least 31 congressional staffers and police to anthrax prompted leaders yesterday to close most of the Capitol complex and touched off an angry debate between the Senate and the House over shutting down Congress.

The airborne anthrax spores contaminated the staff of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose office received the envelope on Monday, as well as three employees in the adjacent office of Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat. Investigators also found anthrax in a Senate mailroom.

"The good news is that everyone will be OK," Mr. Daschle told reporters.

As staffers waited in line up to four hours for antibiotics, a feud erupted among House and Senate leaders on whether to close the Capitol.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said he agreed with Senate leaders in a meeting at the White House yesterday morning to close the entire Capitol complex. House sources said President Bush encouraged congressional leaders to close the buildings.

An urgent memo to House offices declared that all buildings were to close at 7 p.m. yesterday "for a precautionary environmental assessment of all House offices. No personnel will be permitted access to House office buildings during this assessment."

But after Mr. Hastert announced the decision, senators said they would keep the Senate open for at least one vote today.

"We will not let this stop the work of the Senate," Mr. Daschle said.

Congressional sources said one of the most outspoken senators in favor of keeping the Senate open was Minority Leader Trent Lott, who a day earlier had advocated Congress wrapping up its business as quickly as possible.

"I think we've made the right decision to stay in session here in the Capitol and have votes in the Senate," Mr. Lott said yesterday. "Some of the preliminary information [about the grade of anthrax] turned out not to be accurate."

The Senate's action infuriated House members. A top Republican aide said Mr. Daschle and Mr. Lott were the ones who "set off the five-alarm bell" at the White House meeting and called the decision to stay in town "a low blow."

"They're going home, but pretending like they're not," a senior House Democratic staffer said of the Senate.

Indeed, all six Senate and House office buildings will be closed today through Sunday as authorities scour them for any sign of anthrax. Senate staffers were told yesterday not to come back to work until Monday. Some Senate committees will set up shop temporarily today at the Library of Congress.

The Senate could vote today on an anti-terrorism bill that gives the Justice Department broad new police powers on surveillance and searches. House and Senate negotiators reached tentative agreement yesterday that the wiretap provisions in the bill would expire after four years.

Mr. Hastert met some strong opposition among his own Republican rank and file when he told lawmakers yesterday morning of the decision to shut down the House.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and a 28-year veteran, told Mr. Hastert that leaving town "could be construed as a victory for the terrorists."

Some lawmakers viewed the decision to close as an overreaction.

"If it's just that they're worried about anthrax, anthrax is curable," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican. "By us leaving our job, it may contribute to the paranoia."

Others said they have a responsibility to their staffs and to the public to ensure that all Capitol buildings are safe.

"We thought that the best and prudent situation was to do an environmental sweep to make sure that we didn't have any anthrax spores loose and moving around any of our office buildings or in the Capitol itself," Mr. Hastert said.

The speaker's office itself had an anthrax scare yesterday. A Hastert staffer saw photographs in The Washington Times of the anthrax-laden envelopes mailed to Mr. Daschle and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and noticed similarities in the hand-printing to an envelope she had opened many days ago.

Capitol Police removed bags of discarded mail from the office, and six aides to Mr. Hastert were tested for anthrax exposure.

Mail to Congress was halted for the third straight day, and public tours of the Capitol were discontinued indefinitely.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said he supported the decision to close the House.

"We're in a battle with terrorism," Mr. Gephardt said. "We have to fight back against it in the right way, together, with unity and with resolve. We're going to win this battle."

But as congressional leaders struggled to control the situation, confusion persisted on several fronts.

Several senators, after a briefing with doctors and investigators, emphasized that people who tested positive for exposure to anthrax in their nostrils were not infected with the disease. Those people immediately were given the antibiotic Cipro for a 60-day treatment.

However, Mr. Hastert told reporters at least twice yesterday that people in the Senate had been "infected" with anthrax.

Senators yesterday also discredited reports that the anthrax in the envelope to Mr. Daschle was of a "pure" quality that was especially deadly. One lead investigator called it "garden-variety" anthrax that was treated easily with antibiotics.

Authorities yesterday abruptly moved an emergency-treatment station from the Hart Senate Office Building, the scene where the anthrax contamination occurred, to the Russell Senate Office Building. Officials also told anyone who was in the Hart building on Tuesday, when the contamination supposedly had been contained, to return for testing.

Deputy Surgeon General Ken Moritsugu said only those who visited the fifth and sixth floors of the Hart building needed to be tested.


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