Hundreds of thousands of callers swamp senators' phone lines

October 16, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- We're sorry. All circuits are busy now. Will you please try your call again later?

If you had automatic redial yesterday, you were lucky. If you got through to a senator, you were blessed.

Hundreds of thousands of calls flooded Washington yesterday as citizens dialed their senators and the White House to express opinions on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, leaving in their wake thousands more who got busy signals or recordings saying that all circuits were busy.

Senator Barbara Mikulski's office, please hold. Senator Barbara Mikulski's office, please hold. . . .

The scene was repeated in every Senate office yesterday, as receptionists and aides answered phones that rang non-stop from morning to night.

"I came in at 7:45 this morning, and I've been going ever since. The phones have not stopped," said Terri Taylor, one of two aides answering phones in Ms. Mikulski's office. "This is 10 times what we'd get on a normal day."

By midday yesterday, the Maryland Democrat's office had counted 1,900 calls since the weekend -- split evenly in terms of support for Judge Thomas -- to her Washington, Baltimore and statewide offices.

"The last time we got calls of this magnitude was for the Bork nomination," said Mikulski spokesman John Steele, referring to rejected high court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork.

The statewide offices of Maryland's other senator, Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, recorded 2,500 calls yesterday -- slightly more opposing than supporting the confirmation -- and his Washington office recorded 732 Monday, divided evenly on the issue.

"It's been heavy and steady," said Bruce Frame, press secretary for Mr. Sarbanes, as three receptionists logged calls from Silver Spring, Denton, Bel Air, Westminster, Gaithersburg, Chestertown, Columbia and elsewhere. "And a lot of constituents who can't get through on the phone are walking in."

Down the hall in the office of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., an auxiliary phone room had been set up in the mailroom, where interns helped answer the more than 1,000 calls -- also evenly split -- that had come in Monday and again Tuesday.

"We've been completely flooded from all over the country," said Carl Thorsen, staff assistant to the senator who led the questioning for the Republicans. "We're getting as much as our system can handle."

Monday, a holiday during which some offices were closed, 1,006,579 calls were made to senators, according to Senate telecommunications spokeswoman Patty McNally. In the 13 hours between midnight Monday and 1 p.m. yesterday, 553,071 calls were recorded.

On an average day, about 90,000 calls are received, she said.

By 8:15 a.m. yesterday, calls were coming in to the Senate at a rate of 95,000 an hour, said Edward Stanley, a spokesman for Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. "It's expected to surpass a million again today," Mr. Stanley said. "The calling volume is very heavy, but it has not affected our switch. We're nowhere near capacity."

Callers had trouble getting through to the Senate Monday, he said, because the voice-mail system had overloaded.

The White House, too, has been flooded with calls. "We had the largest [number of] phone calls we've ever had, even larger than at any point during the [Persian Gulf] war," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told the Associated Press. "The switchboard has been swamped."

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