- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

The White House said yesterday it is exploring emergency measures to keep the government running if Congress cannot meet, as lawmakers return to a Capitol still disrupted by the anthrax attack.

The Office of Management and Budget is discussing with the House and Senate appropriations committees an automatic funding mechanism to maintain government operations for 30 days, OMB spokeswoman Amy Call said.

"If congressional leaders decide they can't meet, in consultation with the president, [the measure] would make sure the government could function in all scenarios," she said.

The House closed all operations last week as authorities began checking lawmakers' offices for anthrax spores.

Congressional leaders decided last night against reopening Senate and House office buildings today as planned. They said environmental tests of lawmakers' offices were not completed, so they were not certain the buildings were anthrax-free, although no more of the bacteria had been found.

"Science takes time," said Capitol Police spokesman Lt. Dan Nichols. "We're still analyzing the data."

The decision to keep the six office buildings closed threw into question the status of a dozen committee hearings that were scheduled for today. The meeting of one House panel will be moved to the Health and Human Services building.

House leaders have set up alternative office space today for each House member at a federal building on G Street downtown. Senators will open temporary offices at the Postal Square building near Union Station.

Also, lawmakers said they have a tentative agreement with the administration to spend up to $8 billion to combat bioterrorism. The legislation would speed production of vaccines and fund training of hospital workers on how to respond to bioterrorist attacks.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said there is bipartisan agreement on "the sense of urgency and the need to make sure that we as a country are going to take the steps which are necessary to protect all Americans."

Congressional leaders had planned to reopen all Capitol office buildings today, but Lt. Nichols would not speculate how long the buildings would remain closed. He said authorities had yet to devise a plan to decontaminate the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings, where anthrax was discovered last week in a letter to Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and in a mailroom.

"We have to find a way to do it that's effective," Lt. Nichols said, indicating those two buildings will be closed indefinitely.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, said last night in a joint statement that House office buildings will be closed today "or until definitive test results are available."

The delay came as investigators learned that two U.S. Postal Service employees who handled mail to Congress had died, likely from anthrax infections.

The House and Senate will be in session today, with votes expected, but it was not clear where lawmakers would conduct most of their other business. As lawmakers debated how to proceed, the White House said it was considering the emergency legislation on government operations to be included in this year's appropriations bills.

Miss Call said the proposal originated in the White House last week. The OMB spokeswoman called it a "good government" proposal.

While the discussions are still at the staff level, Miss Call said, the proposal likely will allow the president, upon the required notification by congressional leaders, simply to direct government agencies to continue operating at current funding levels.

When Congress has not yet reached agreement on a new federal budget, lawmakers normally approve a bill extending government operations at current funding levels for 14 days or 30 days.

The proposal surfaced as lawmakers struggled to keep the Capitol open. On Saturday, authorities reported they had found anthrax in a mailroom of the Ford House office building on a machine that bundled mail for the Longworth office building.

That discovery stifled criticism of House leaders for deciding last week to leave the Capitol while their Senate colleagues remained on the job.

"He made the right call," John Feehery, spokesman for Mr. Hastert, said of the speaker's decision to close the House last week. "We need to get to the bottom of this, and the best way to do that is a complete environmental sweep."

As lawmakers get back to work, the Republican-led House is expected to pass a $100 billion economic-stimulus package this week.

The House and Senate also hope to send to President Bush for his signature in coming days a freshly drafted compromise anti-terrorism package prompted by the Sept. 11 hijacked jetliner attacks on the United States. Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, has placed a hold on that legislation while he tries to eliminate an Oregon law that he says ties the hands of federal prosecutors in undercover investigations.

No more congressional employees tested positive for exposure to anthrax since 28 staffers and Capitol police were found last week to have been exposed. Lt. Nichols said more than 5,000 congressional employees have been tested.

In all, anthrax has been discovered in four locations at the Capitol: In the fifth floor of the Hart building, in the Dirksen mailroom, in a mailroom at the Ford House office building and in a mail processing center at P and Half streets SE.

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