White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said two top Bush aides briefed Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. on Tuesday, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., "had been previously informed."
But House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., was not part of Tuesday's session. His spokesman Erik Smith said Gephardt did not know about the meeting until it ended. He said he did not know why Gephardt was not invited.
"We're disappointed, we don't understand why they would choose not to invite Mr. Gephardt," Smith said.
Fleischer told reporters that Gephardt's absence was "a scheduling matter," but when pressed on whether Gephardt was invited, Fleischer replied, "I don't make all the invitations here at the White House."
"If he was not (invited), it was inadvertent," Fleischer said. He insisted that congressional leaders were informed of the plan in the proper manner, adding that lawmakers will realize that "when members of Congress have a chance to pause, think and talk to each other."
After the briefing, Daschle, who protested that he should have been told earlier about the shadow government, said it's basically just a "contingency plan" for an emergency. He called for a "cease fire" on "who told who what and when," reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss, but added that the White House did not do a good job of informing key people.
Regarding the controversy over who knew what, Lott said there was adequate notification. And he dismissed the very notion of a "shadow government."
"There is no shadow government," he said. "I don't know where that term came from. There has been for many years a plan for continuity in government and it goes into place automatically when you have an event like we had."
The contingency plans include housing 75 to 150 senior administration officials in secure underground facilities. The officials rotate in and out of the secret sites, spending days at a time away from friends and family, to ensure that top government officials survive an attack on Washington.
White House and congressional aides said the lawmakers were briefed by White House chief of staff Andrew Card and Nicholas Calio, the administration's chief congressional lobbyist.
Some aides declined to discuss details of Tuesday's session, saying it was classified.
Fleischer said the "shadow government" was a tightly held secret because the White House did not want a repeat of the underground bunker at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. It was designed to protect members of Congress in a nuclear strike, but is now a tourist site rented out for theme parties.
"There was a similar program that operated for the legislative branch and as a result of a great number of people talking about it, discussing it, and being informed, the program is now a tourist attraction, at a waste of millions and millions of dollars to the public," Fleischer said.
"The president has no interest in repeating in the executive branch what happened in the legislative branch," he said.
After The Washington Post revealed the existence of the plans last week, Daschle complained that he had known nothing about them.
Lott said he, too, had not known about the plans until they were reported by the newspaper, adding, "And I had no justification for it, either."
"This is not the kind of thing you tell 10, 50 or 100 senators. If you do, you might as well tell the world," Lott said.
The procedures, a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, marks the first time that the Cold War-era continuity of government plan has been implemented.
Daschle said Sunday he wants Mr. Bush to keep congressional leaders better informed about the war on terrorism and the shadow government. He said no lawmakers knew about the continuity of government plan.
Fleischer said "the appropriate people" on Capitol Hill knew of the plan. "I cannot speak to how Congress fully informs itself. I'm confident and the president is confident that when people pause and talk to each other on the Hill" they will discover who was told of the administration's plan.
He said the information was tightly held because secrecy is key to ensuring the continuity of government in the event of a disaster.
Asked if Daschle was not informed because he is not in the line to succeed the president, Fleischer replied, "There is a line of succession."
Hastert, next in line after Vice President Dick Cheney to succeed Bush, was given a full briefing on the contingency plans, said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
The White House also maintains that it informed Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who follows Hastert in the line of succession.
But CBS News Senior White House Correspondent John Roberts reports Byrd's office states emphatically that they were never told of the shadow government.
"Sen. Byrd has not been briefed and neither has his staff," said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.