Capitol to reopen, but offices stay closed

House and Senate in session tomorrow

19 buildings off-limits

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 22, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Despite new evidence of anthrax in mail facilities serving Congress, legislative leaders decided to reopen the entire Capitol for business today but leave House and Senate office buildings closed for at least another day to complete the search for further evidence of the deadly bacteria.

The House and Senate will be in session tomorrow with full legislative schedules.

Weighing political and medical concerns, the leaders settled on a symbolic message that the 200-year- old meeting place of the legislative branch of government - one of the nation's most recognizable buildings - was functioning normally despite terrorist threats and the abrupt closing of the House side on Wednesday.

"What this means is that the legislative business of the nation continues," said Lt. Dan Nichols, a spokesman for the Capitol Police.

But most of the nearly 30,000 workers in the Capitol complex will continue to be displaced because 19 office buildings remain closed while workers from government agencies complete their search for hazardous materials, particularly anthrax.

A postal worker in the District of Columbia who handles mail headed for Congress was reported in serious condition yesterday after inhaling anthrax. On Saturday, officials said they had found evidence of anthrax on a mail bundling machine in the Ford House Office Building, marking the first appearance on the House side after anthrax was discovered Oct. 15 in a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office.

The office buildings will remain closed, Nichols said, "until we have definite test results" from all the surveys from the past few days.

Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, said yesterday: "This is a very emotional issue. We are trying to make sure that recommendations we make are carefully thought out, not just an emotional response, but based on science." The goal, he said, is to "minimize worry."

For congressional leaders, though, the goal was to project an image of prudent strength.

House leaders took a beating after they decided Wednesday to shut down their side while the Senate remained open.

Most pointed was a New York Post headline over a picture of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt that read: "Wimps."

Of nearly 5,000 people on Capitol Hill tested for anthrax since Oct. 15, 28 have shown signs of bacteria exposure - and all were in the vicinity of Daschle's office that day. Yet, the Senate stayed in session through Thursday, and its side never shut down. The building was almost comically divided in half with police posted to make sure no one passed through to the House side of the Rotunda on the second floor or the corresponding points on other floors.

But House leaders made their decision to shut down at a time when reports suggested the bacteria might be flowing through the ventilation system and before they knew that it could be easily treated by many forms of antibiotics.

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said yesterday that with the discovery of anthrax in the Ford building, House leaders "now appear to be vindicated" in their decisions.

House leaders were determined to show that they would not be scared off.

"We were told this would never happen again," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "We would meet at alternative sites, if we had to, but we would not be shut down."

Yesterday, House leaders considered alternative meeting sites but decided they weren't necessary.

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