For the first time in history, the House decided to close down operations today in the face of danger. The closure will allow environmental technicians to sweep the chamber and three related office buildings for possible infestation by anthrax bacteria.
But defiant Senate leaders decided to continue meeting in their chamber through today, partly as an example of courage to members of the U.S. armed forces deployed around Afghanistan.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it is wrong to evacuate the Capitol because of a threat.
"Our nation is at war," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va. "The men and women of our armed forces are in harm's way. It is important that we . . . show commensurate courage."
"We will not let this stop the work of the Senate," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
While the Senate side of the domed Capitol building remains open, the Senate is closing its three office buildings until Monday morning.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ruled the House itself closed on the advice of House security personnel, and on the basis of reports of anthrax infestation, some of which are unconfirmed.
"To ensure safety, we thought it best to do a complete sweep, an environmental sweep," Hastert said.
Only once before were congressional operations interrupted by war or disaster. That was in August 1814, when British invaders burned the Capitol and the White House.
The House and Senate moved to "Blodget's Hotel," near the present site of the Supreme Court, and continued meeting there, calling the building "the Brick Capitol."
After the British swept through the city, Northern congressmen proposed that the government be moved to Philadelphia. But the House voted that down, and Congress stayed at Blodget's until repairs were completed on the Capitol.
Congressional Research Service, an
arm of the Library of Congress, said there were many instances when operations were suspended because of the death of a prominent member.
But Senate historians were unable to find any other instance where either house had closed because of a disaster or threat.
During a closed-door meeting of House members at noon Wednesday, neither Hastert nor Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., discussed moving House operations to one of the many nearby hotels, which are half-empty, or to another federal building, according to Reps. Tom Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Amo Houghton, R-Corning.
Daschle said 31 people had been exposed to anthrax. But he stressed in his floor speech and in a news conference that exposure is not the same as infection.
In announcing closure of the House chamber, Gephardt said the Senate employees and Capitol police had been "infected."
Gephardt also said the anthrax to which Senate employees were exposed was "weapons grade." However, this was discounted by Senate officials. They said the anthrax sample was of the type commonly found in agricultural situations.
Hastert, in announcing the House will cease operations until Tuesday to permit a sweep of the chamber, its ventilation systems and three office buildings, claimed part of the ventilation system was infested, a report which has not been confirmed.
The House leadership decision left a bad taste among some Republicans as well as Democrats. Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., said: "There are many ways to attack us. We're at war. I would rather we stayed open."
Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said, "In this situation it is important for us to project to the rest of the county a sense of calm, confidence and equanimity. This is not a way to project calm, confidence and equanimity.
"There are plenty of other places in town to do our work," LaFalce said.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a Senate caucus that closing down the Senate would send the wrong message to Americans, particularly those who are trying to rebuild their lives and businesses in New York City.
Karen Dunn, a spokeswoman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said her boss praised Daschle's leadership and said he has made the right decision.
"What the House does is up to them," Dunn quoted Clinton as saying.
Reynolds said he would rather not have interrupted the work schedule of the House, but noted members had their staffs to consider, some of whom "are scared to death."
Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, sent his employees home immediately, not waiting for the end of the business day. "If it's going to be hazardous tonight, it's hazardous now," he said.
Quinn, however, stayed. He had been assigned to work from the House speaker's chair Wednesday afternoon.
Some House members took misinformation away from the briefing by Hastert and Gephardt. Houghton, for example, said he was told there were rooms in the Capitol that were infested. However, the only confirmed locations were in the Senate's Dirksen and Hart office buildings, across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol.
Houghton said, "Any responsible employer in the U.S. would have made the same decision" Hastert did. "This is a precautionary step; it is not a reason to panic."
Bureau assistant David J. Hill contributed to this report.
Cannot distribute vertically e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org