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Congress Makes History In NYC

Congress convened Friday in the city struck hardest by the Sept. 11 attacks for a rare special session to show the nation's mourning for the loss and unity in the war against terrorism.

Some 300 senators and House members came to New York by train, meeting at the historic site where Congress first formed in 1789, and expressing solidarity and support for this city that lost more than 2,800 lives.

At New York's historic Federal Hall, just a few blocks from ground zero, history and heartache stood side by side.

Friday marked the first time since 1790 that the U.S. Congress was in session in New York City. But, 200 years ago the worry was tyranny. Today, it is terrorism.

Back in Washington, as CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports, the debate over the U.S. invading Iraq may be dividing Congress, but not here, not today.

House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said, "While we discuss and debate the next decisions on the fundamental issue let there be no doubt, there are no republicans there are no democrats, there are only Americans."

Today was more about symbolism than substance a chance for Congress to show New Yorkers and the nation we remember their major contribution to the war on terrorism takes place on Capitol Hill.

The site, Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, is located only a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once punctuated the city's skyline.

"From this city's one day of horror — out of all the loss and sorrow — has come a strength, a resolve, a determination, which from Manhattan to Mississippi, now binds us together for the mighty work that lies ahead," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said during a 50-minute session.

Vice President Dick Cheney joined House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in presiding over the session, with a huge American flag behind them. Although largely symbolic, many lawmakers say the trip was a necessary statement of support for the city and its people as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches.

"We still feel the loss of every single person who perished on that fateful day," Hastert said. "But as we lament the loss of life, we can marvel at the bravery of those who rushed to help."

Cheney said the Revolutionary War was still a fresh memory when that first Congress met more than 200 years ago in New York. Today, he said, the nation must rise to defend the principles laid down by those founding fathers.

"As a nation born in revolution, we know that our freedom came at a very high price. We have no intention now of letting it slip away," Cheney said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

"Let history record that the terrorists failed," he said. "They did not understand that the true strength of America is not in steel, is not in concrete. It's in our shared faith in liberty and in our unwavering commitment to each other."

"We think of those last calls on cellphones from a doomed building ... that the life of a good person is like a wellspring that does not run dry," said Gephardt. "The sorrow has been matched by strength ... not just to defeat terrorism but to show once again that good can triumph over evil."

As the session closed, the Stuyvesant High School choir sang "God Bless America" joined by most members of Congress, who clasped hands as they sang the final verse.

Before leaving New York, the lawmakers each placed a flag at ground zero. Vice President Cheney called it a battlefield where heroes died and the world will remember in five days.

Several dozen demonstrators gathered a block from the hall, protesting that too little of the $20 billion that Congress has appropriated for rebuilding New York is getting to low-income residents and complaining that the Environmental Protection Agency has not done enough to clean up apartments infested with asbestos dust from the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

Accompanied by many spouses and aides, lawmakers arrived via two special Amtrak trains from Washington for the session. Police presence was heavy, with police dogs and officers with assault weapons standing guard as legislators boarded.

The sense of history was underscored when the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain, delivered the invocation with the Bible used by George Washington to take the oath of office at his first presidential inauguration.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said the site where Congress met at the nation's birth has special significance in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

"Congress returning to its roots at Federal Hall shows that this nation will endure," Armey said.

Bloomberg said the session gives the city "our chance to say thank you to Congress and to the American people for the support they gave us. We couldn't have gotten through this without their efforts."

New York has been struggling with multibillion dollar budget deficits since the attacks devastated the city's financial center. At the request of Bloomberg, the Annenberg Foundation offered $1 million to pay for the ceremonial session.

The last time Congress met in New York, in 1789-90, lawmakers watched as George Washington was inaugurated as the nation's first president. The chunk of sandstone flooring where Washington stood was on hand for Friday's event at Federal Hall, just blocks from the 16-acre site where the 110-story towers once stood.

New York was then the nation's capital. But lawmakers held their final session in New York on Aug. 12, 1790, having decided to move to Philadelphia for a decade while a new capital city was built in what became Washington.

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