- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

The Senate moved forward on a counterterrorism bill yesterday in a Capitol otherwise emptied by anthrax, as senators downplayed suggestions from media and citizens that their absent House colleagues were wimps.

"We have to send an example that the United States Senate is open and ready for business," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, as the Senate convened in a Capitol bereft of nearly all of its 20,000 employees. "The United States Senate will continue to be the conscience of the nation."

The House was closed, as were all six Capitol office buildings, to allow authorities to sweep for anthrax spores. No further traces were detected.

The closure became fodder for callers to TV call-in and talk-radio shows yesterday, demanding to know how House leaders could ask others to "carry on" while they were leaving.

"Wimps," said the New York Post, calling the top House members "the leaders who ran away from anthrax drawing jeers from senators, public health officials and New Yorkers."

Meanwhile, House leaders were defending their decision to leave town.

"I think it was the right decision," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat. "We have a responsibility to keep people out of harm's way. What message would it send to the terrorists if we stupidly put people back in harm's way to be infected by anthrax?"

Senators, although generally avoiding explicit criticism of the House, were clearly proud of their example in making a symbolic show of standing up to bioterrorism and setting up temporary offices in cramped crannies of the Capitol.

"We can't ask some 18-year-old on duty in our armed services in Kosovo to stand sentry duty in the middle of the night next to a mine field and say, 'But U.S. senators aren't here,'" Mr. Leahy said.

Added Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, "Now is not the time to ignore our responsibilities, abandon our posts and scurry out of town. We cannot fulfill our duties with one eye on the door."

But some senators explicitly said House leaders overreacted to the threat.

"I'm a bit amazed they would choose to [leave town] with the workload we have," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.

"I do think there was an overreaction, and it was a mistake for the House to leave," said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. "I thought it was unfortunate."

However, Mr. Conrad disputed the accusations that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other House leaders had acted cowardly.

"I don't believe for a minute that he's a wimp," he said of Mr. Hastert. "I don't believe the other leaders in the House are wimps. That's kind of silliness."

Said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican: "There's no wimps over there. I have to negotiate with them. Well, I could name one or two."

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said "far too much is being made" of the House action.

"The House was not getting as regular reports as we were," said Mr. Lott.

"They acted on the information they had. I fully understand that," he said.

In yesterday's business, senators prepared the anti-terrorism bill for final passage next week and, in their only vote, approved a military construction spending bill 96-1. Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the broad new police powers, saying the bill "will immediately increase our capacity to detect, to disrupt and to prevent acts of terrorism."

On the counterterrorism bill, Senate and House negotiators agreed that certain new wiretapping and search powers will expire after four years.

The House bill had a two-year sunset provision; the Senate version had no such expiration date.

Mr. Ashcroft sought the new laws to help hunt down terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and to prevent future assaults. The bill lets federal authorities detain illegal immigrants suspected of terrorist activities for up to seven days without filing charges. The period under current law is 48 hours.

The legislation also tightens restrictions on money-laundering and makes it a federal crime punishable by life imprisonment to possess biological toxins such as anthrax.

About 20 House Democrats met at a Capitol Hill town house for a meeting of the Democrats' Task Force on Homeland Security, said the task force's chairman, Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay got a security briefing with other Republican lawmakers at the National Republican Congressional Committee offices near the Capitol.

"Congress is not a building," said Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican. "Congress is wherever the elected representatives gather to make decisions for the American people."

Congressional leaders declared the anthrax situation under control and promised business on Capitol Hill will return to normal next week. With office buildings closed, authorities set up the emergency treatment station at a federal building on East Capitol Street, six blocks from the Capitol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday that testing for exposure to anthrax was no longer necessary because spores in a person's nostrils could no longer be detected.

An undetermined number of worried House staffers who showed up at the emergency testing station were turned away, including an aide to Mr. Hastert.

Deputy Surgeon General Ken Moritsugu said the "exposure area" was limited to the fifth and sixth floors of the Hart building, where an aide to Mr. Daschle opened an envelope containing anthrax on Monday. He said there is no evidence any anthrax got into the building's ventilation system.

Mr. Moritsugu said anyone who was on those two floors of the Hart building on Monday should take the entire 60-day course of antibiotics, regardless of whether they tested positive for exposure.

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