Bio-Terror Pits House Against Senate

Conflicted is probably the best way to describe congressional reaction to the letter containing anthrax that was sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office.

While Senate leaders put on a brave face by saying they were not going to shut down, House leaders ordered an adjournment beginning Wednesday night and lasting through next Tuesday.

The Senate made its decision even though 29 of Daschle's staffers, two Capitol police officers and two aides to Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., have tested positive for exposure to anthrax, and hundreds of others are waiting for their test results.

"It is my strong determination, and Sen. Lott's as well, that we will not let this stop the work of the Senate... and I am absolutely determined to ensure that the Senate continues to do its work," Daschle said.

"I think we've made the right decision to stay in session here in the Capitol and have votes in the Senate this afternoon, and probably tomorrow also because there is no risks there in the Capitol," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., added. "And we feel confident we can continue to get our work done while taking necessary precautions to protect the people that work with us."

Meantime, across the Capitol, House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ordered an adjournment, although there's no evidence of any anthrax in the Capitol building or across the street in the House office buildings.

In addition, Hastert told reporters that anthrax had gotten "into the ventilation system” in the Senate side of the Capitol. Scott Lillibridge, a bioterrorism expert at the Department of Health and Human Services, said he was mistaken.

Currently, the only people who have tested positive for exposure were located in the Hart Senate Office Building, on the opposite end of the Capitol complex from the House buildings. There was also evidence of anthrax in the Senate mailroom in another Senate office building.

"We decided that probably the best effort for the House of Representatives is to stay in today, do our business, and then adjourn the House tonight and allow members to go home, so that we can come back and do our work on Tuesday," Hastert said.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., agreed, saying, "What we're doing today is really what should happen anywhere in the country where a similar kind of an event might take place. This is the prudent and cautious approach."

Some of their Senate colleagues seriously disagree with the House leaders' approach.

"Everybody should calm down," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del. "I think there is initial, significant overreaction."

While the Senate leaders are moving forward and the House will leave town, their staffers seem to have the opposite reactions of their respective leaders.

A Senate staffer told that while Daschle and Lott are trying to stay positive publicly, "everyone's concerned. They're concerned for those involved and the ossibility of other attacks." The staffer was tested Monday and given antibiotics but is still waiting for his test result.

The staffer also indicated that there has been a tightening of who is allowed to talk to the media, with most aides staying mum and referring all questions to press secretaries.

When asked about the House decision to adjourn and whether the Senate should do the same, the staffer said he'd "rather be working. I don't want them (the senders of the anthrax) to shut us down."

On the House side, the staffers' attitudes are much less intense than their leaders, Hastert and Gephardt, and some are even trying to figure out what to do for their newly announced five-day weekend.

"We're all a little nervous," said Josh Straka, the communications director for Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y. "But nobody's panicking... cooler heads are prevailing."

Another House staffer said, "This is the Capitol. We're resigned to the fact that we'll always be a target for freaks."

"If this was a real drastic emergency, they wouldn't even let us stay the rest of the day," he added.

The one thing everyone agrees on, however, is the way the crisis has been handled by the police, investigators and the medical professionals involved.

"I feel extremely good about the process that we have employed all the way through this time," Daschle said.

The Senate staffer concurred, "We're all impressed with the way things have been handled."

"We have confidence since we have the best and brightest reacting to it," Straka added.

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