Senate Readies Terror Measure; Barbs Target House Members
Boyer, Dave, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Byline: Dave Boyer
The Senate moved forward on a counterterrorism bill yesterday in a Capitol otherwise emptied by anthrax, as senators downplayed suggestions from media and citizens that their absent House colleagues were wimps.
"We have to send an example that the United States Senate is open and ready for business," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, as the Senate convened in a Capitol bereft of nearly all of its 20,000 employees. "The United States Senate will continue to be the conscience of the nation."
The House was closed, as were all six Capitol office buildings, to allow authorities to sweep for anthrax spores. No further traces were detected.
The closure became fodder for callers to TV call-in and talk-radio shows yesterday, demanding to know how House leaders could ask others to "carry on" while they were leaving.
"Wimps," said the New York Post, calling the top House members "the leaders who ran away from anthrax . . . drawing jeers from senators, public health officials and New Yorkers."
Meanwhile, House leaders were defending their decision to leave town.
"I think it was the right decision," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat. "We have a responsibility to keep people out of harm's way. What message would it send to the terrorists if we stupidly put people back in harm's way to be infected by anthrax?"
Senators, although generally avoiding explicit criticism of the House, were clearly proud of their example in making a symbolic show of standing up to bioterrorism and setting up temporary offices in cramped crannies of the Capitol.
"We can't ask some 18-year-old on duty in our armed services in Kosovo to stand sentry duty in the middle of the night next to a mine field and say, `But U.S. senators aren't here,'" Mr. Leahy said.
Added Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, "Now is not the time to ignore our responsibilities, abandon our posts and scurry out of town. We cannot fulfill our duties with one eye on the door."
But some senators explicitly said House leaders overreacted to the threat.
"I'm a bit amazed they would choose to [leave town] with the workload we have," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican.
"I do think there was an overreaction, and it was a mistake for the House to leave," said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. "I thought it was unfortunate."
However, Mr. Conrad disputed the accusations that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other House leaders had acted cowardly.
"I don't believe for a minute that he's a wimp," he said of Mr. Hastert. "I don't believe the other leaders in the House are wimps. That's kind of silliness."
Said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican: "There's no wimps over there. I have to negotiate with them. Well, I could name one or two."
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said "far too much is being made" of the House action.
"The House was not getting as regular reports as we were," said Mr. Lott.
"They acted on the information they had. I fully understand that," he said.
In yesterday's business, senators prepared the anti-terrorism bill for final passage next week and, in their only vote, approved a military construction spending bill 96-1. Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the broad new police powers, saying the bill "will immediately increase our capacity to detect, to disrupt and to prevent acts of terrorism."
On the counterterrorism bill, Senate and House negotiators agreed that certain new wiretapping and search powers will expire after four years.
The House bill had a two-year sunset provision; the Senate version had no such expiration date.
Mr. Ashcroft sought the new laws to help hunt down terrorists responsible for the Sept. …