Canton Repository

October 18, 2001

Ohio lawmakers supportive of precautions 

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Worried that deadly anthrax could be lurking in the halls of Congress, leaders of the House and Senate on Wednesday ordered half a dozen office buildings closed for an environmental sweep and decontamination that could
last into next week.

The unprecedented decision to close buildings near the Capitol as well as the House side of the Capitol building followed the discovery of anthrax in a letter opened in Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle’s office Monday.

So far, 31 people, most of them on Daschle’s staff, have tested positive for exposure to the bacteria.

As the House adjourned a day early with plans to return Tuesday, Ohio lawmakers expressed support for the decision.

“I think the leadership is taking measures of precaution,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township. “They don’t know what the extent of the threat might be. Instead of taking the risk of an individual being infected by the disease, they want to get people out of the building.”

Unlike the House, the Senate remains in session through today, even though its offices are closed. Daschle, D-S.D., said meetings and hearings would be held in the Senate side of the Capitol and nearby Library of Congress.

Investigators verified that anthrax was found in Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building and in the mailroom of the Dirksen Senate Building next door.

Federal officials said there is still no evidence that anthrax spores made it into the heating and ventilation system in the Senate buildings, which could have exposed thousands of people to the bacteria.

But Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., acknowledged during a briefing that it was “in the air” when staff members were infected. Daschle added that some staff members could have transferred the germ through hugging. “People were hugging each other, and I think maybe in that effort there could have been the transfer from one person to the next,” he said.

Officials backed off earlier reports that the anthrax found in Daschle’s office is a highly potent, finely milled variety. Tests to make those determinations are continuing, Frist said.

Officials revealed that the anthrax is not an engineered form that resists antibiotics.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, doubted the Senate would remain active the entire day.

“If you sweep the House side in the Capitol, you can’t have people from the Senate walking over. This is a joint effort. If they’re staying over a little bit, that’s fine. It’s their decision. But again, in order to do this in a sound way, you have to sweep the entire complex,” he said.

As chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees management of the chamber, Ney said he will maintain operations outside the closed building.

“It’s actually arranged by my staff, so I don’t know anything. But we’re going to be somewhere,” he said.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, saw decontamination as only a precautionary measure. But he added that “given the fact that we don’t know whether the Daschle letter was the only one that was sent into the complex I think it’s prudent to do a thorough check ... to determine whether or not there was a spread of spores through other pieces of mail and other means.”

When Congress returns next week, Sawyer said, he anticipates a “heightened awareness and a much clearer set of guidelines with regard to how you treat mail.”

Ohio’s senators agreed with the decision to remain in session.

“The Senate’s attitude is that we need to continue to work, and so we’re going to be in session tomorrow and work out of offices in the U.S. Capitol,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican.

So far, the attack has had little effect on DeWine’s schedule. He was pulled out of his daily routine for an hour and a half to attend a briefing, and then took additional time to calm the fears of staff members in Ohio.

“I worry about you every day,” he told them. “I worry about you when you drive cars. I worry about you on many things, and I think this is one more thing we have to put in perspective.” Several of DeWine’s staff underwent testing for anthrax.

Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican whose office is in the Hart Building where anthrax was found released a statement saying he was “pleased that the Senate leadership has decided to test the Senate office buildings to alleviate the concerns of staffers and their families.” He said he plans to be tested for exposure to the bacteria.

Regula said he could understand why the Senate chose to stay in session. “They’ve been immunized,” he said, referring to some 200 Senate staff members and others who were tested for exposure to anthrax and put on a preventive round of antibiotics. “And keep in mind, managing 100 senators in the Capitol is different from managing 435 members plus

Regula planned to return to Ohio for the weekend and continue his work there, including reading a report on a Senate appropriations bill to finance federal spending on health services, education and jobs programs.

“It’s about an inch thick. It won’t be overnight. But it will give me a chance to get up to speed with the actions of the Senate,” he said.

As chairman of a House subcommittee that funds health, education and labor spending, Regula pushed to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extra money to defend against bioterrorism.

“I put an extra $100 million in. And it doesn’t look like enough now. CDC is the front line troops on this whole problem,” he said.