San Diego Union-Tribune
October 18, 2001
Congress torn between caution, panic
House adjourns; Senate to convene
By TOBY ECKERT and FINLAY LEWIS
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders reacted yesterday to an unprecedented bioterror incident with contradictory, ad hoc decisions that underlined the uncertainty gripping the nation as it fights a new kind of war.
Lacking a script, House and Senate leaders have wrestled since Monday with conflicting impulses, trying to straddle a fine line between caution and panic. The result, at times, has seemed to be a mix of confusion and reversals that is drawing second-guessing and criticism.
Although House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., decided to adjourn until Tuesday so the chamber and all offices could be scoured for anthrax, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., vowed to convene today as planned.
Conflicting statements about the type of anthrax discovered Monday in Daschle's office near the Capitol and whether it had spread to other areas added to the confusion.
The situation came at a time of widespread public anxiety as measured by the number of people across the nation contacting hospital emergency rooms,
doctors, pharmacies and 911 emergency lines for protection from anthrax.
"It is unsettling to have an institution like the House shut down because of the threat," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congress and Presidential Studies. "In these times of worry and low-grade depression by everybody about all of this, it probably is not that helpful."
Despite assurances earlier in the week from Capitol Police that there were protocols in place to handle such emergencies, it was clear the government was in uncharted territory.
"We're working in such a new atmosphere right now. Some of this is being learned on the fly, quite honestly," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego.
"The rule here has to be that leaders . . . not say something they are not sure of," said former Vice President Walter Mondale. "They should wait before
they say things, unless they are certain."
Hastert said there was evidence of anthrax in the ventilation system and that the House and Senate would shut down until next week, suggesting there was
agreement with Daschle. But the Senate majority leader later said there was no such evidence and that the Senate would convene today. Some Senate
officials contend the House overreacted.
Many experts said they weren't surprised by the confusion, given that this is the first time Congress has faced such a threat.
"I suspect there might be some kind of plan that exists somewhere. But to confront a specific situation in real time that has many features that might not fit into the plan is a different thing," said Arnold Howitt, an expert on domestic terrorism preparedness at Harvard University.
The response on Capitol Hill started unfolding Monday, when a powdery substance spilled from a letter opened by a staff member in Daschle's office. After the results of two preliminary tests of the substance were positive for anthrax, the office was quarantined, its ventilation system was shut off and workers in the immediate area were tested for exposure.
But authorities waited until the next morning, after a more sophisticated test confirmed the presence of anthrax, to isolate a larger section of the building
that shared the ventilation system with Daschle's office. Thousands of people who had been in the building were advised to get tested.
Now, some are questioning whether the entire building should have been evacuated Monday, especially because three aides to Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have tested positive for exposure to anthrax. Feingold's office is adjacent to Daschle's.
Asked about the delay in closing the affected part of the building, Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said: "We were dealing with what was a preliminary situation. We dealt with the situation according to protocols. Now that we have developed further concrete information, we're proceeding in this manner."
Dr. Elin Gursky is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. She said she doesn't know of any standard guidelines that public health officials use to determine when an entire building should be closed in the event of a potential or confirmed biological attack.
"We are learning a lot as this goes along and as this story unfolds," she said. "Clearly, we will be a lot smarter when this is all over. We will know more
about what it means to be prepared, the sort of procedures that should be in place, the response by leaders in terms of what they tell the public."