Events alter congressional agenda

Democrats, GOP put their differences aside to support president

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 13, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The deadly assaults on the United States have suddenly altered Washington's agenda from a tight-fisted battle over priorities to a broad agreement to spend whatever it takes to avenge the terrorism, repair the damage and prevent future attacks.

Democrats as well as Republicans say they are united behind President Bush as he considers a military response and seeks $20 billion in emergency money to deal with the devastation in New York City and the Pentagon.

"The political wars will cease because what we have now is a war on terrorism," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. "The political arguments of Monday and the political arguments of last week are done with."

Differences are expected to emerge in the weeks ahead as Congress works with the administration to reassess and perhaps reshape defense policy. And at some point, the president and lawmakers will return to debating budgets and taxes and the appropriate use of Social Security reserve funds.

But for now, the economic issues that, until Monday, appeared to be setting the stage for the 2002 elections have been knocked off the table.

"All these are important issues, but our country has been attacked," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, where one of the four hijacked airplanes crashed. "I think we need to concentrate right now on how we repair our county and how we respond."

The House is expected to vote today on a hastily crafted emergency spending measure that would provide an infusion of cash for disaster relief and a military response.

The $20 billion request includes reimbursements to federal, state and local governments for the cost of responding to the attacks, repair of public facilities and transit systems, increased transit security, counterterrorism efforts and new military spending.

Bush initially asked congressional leaders to grant him an open-ended request that would amount to a blank check. Lawmakers balked, however, and negotiated the $20 billion figure with the White House last night.

Little opposition is expected -- even though the money will have to come from Social Security reserves that the president and lawmakers in both parties had pledged not to spend for other purposes, except in case of war or recession.

"I think that this is the definition of a severe emergency, and the president's first focus is on helping those who have been injured and getting the resources in place so that emergency workers and authorities have everything they need to save lives," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman.

Democrats offered no resistance, despite having protested for weeks that Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut was such a drain on the federal purse that Social Security funds would have to be "raided" to pay for government operations.

"That was an important debate, but it's just not our priority now," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who said he was waiting to hear whether any of his constituents were among the casualties in the attack on the Pentagon.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both New York Democrats eager for as much help as possible for their traumatized city, expressed a similar sentiment.

"As much as we both think that balancing the budget is important, there are times when other priorities have to be higher," Schumer said. "This would seem to one of those times."

Officials were having great difficulty yesterday estimating how much emergency money would be needed. In New York alone, money will be needed not only to pay for rescue, relief and rebuilding but, possibly, to cover the financial losses of private companies at the World Trade Center.

"Clearly, we have to make a commitment to rebuilding and reconstruction [of] what has been damaged and destroyed," said Clinton. "This was an attack on America. We have an obligation to do whatever is necessary to demonstrate that you do not undermine this country by terrorism. That would be the greatest rebuke to those who planned and carried this out."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said he thought that today's bipartisan unity would fade once Congress begins debating Bush's request for more defense spending.

Although there is broad agreement on the need to pay for any military response by the United States, lawmakers differ on long-term defense issues, including the president's desire to deploy an expensive missile defense system.

Opponents in Congress have been quick to observe that such a system would have been of no use in stopping this week's terrorist attack. They argue that money could better be spent on reinvigorating the nation's spy network.

But the $18.4 billion defense request that Bush made earlier this year, which until this week seemed likely to be pared back because it was too expensive, won't face questions about the cost.

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