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Suspicious Mail Puts Hill on High Alert

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Capitol Police officers cleared the public spaces of the Hart Senate Office Building on Wednesday after a report of a suspicious package. The “all clear” came a few hours later, but after Monday’s bombing in Boston and Tuesday’s ricin scare, the Hill community was shaken.

The heightened concern wasn’t just at the Capitol, either. Two senators said their state offices had also received strange envelopes.

In a statement, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said the letter that arrived at his Saginaw, Mich., office was being tested for hazardous material and that the staffer who had handled the piece of mail, while experiencing no symptoms, planned to stay overnight in a local hospital for observation.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both said that the situation with mail delivered to state offices, which isn’t subject to the same kind of off-site scrutiny as mail sent to the Capitol complex itself, would be reviewed by aides in light of recent events.

“I think we’ve had a good measure of response here,” Graham said. His chief of staff will serve as the point person on the review of mail procedures.

Rockefeller said he did not yet know what his staff planned, but expected to hear back from his state office by the end of Wednesday regarding the procedures.

“My guess is yes,” there will be new procedures, “because of the person who runs the state office ... they would do that, but I don’t know for sure.”

Some Senate staffers said informally that they wished they had received better communication about the developments of the past 48 hours. Email bulletins from Gainer’s office go only to a limited number of more senior Senate aides, and many staffers said they were left to gauge the severity of the situation by word-of-mouth, media reports and social media such as Twitter.

“For the majority of issues, I respect the preference of the Member’s leadership staff, which is to give the info to Chiefs of Staff, Staff Directors, Chief Clerks, and Administrative Managers,” Gainer said in an email to CQ Roll Call. “Those individuals have email access through their BlackBerry or other communication device. They know to whom to give the information and the urgency (or not) of the message. I trust their judgment.”

Excitement seemed confined to the Senate on Wednesday, as the House Sergeant-at-Arms’ office reiterated to CQ Roll Call late in the afternoon that it had not received any threats or suspicious mailings.

But many senators heading to the chamber to take decisive votes on amendments to legislation to overhaul the nation’s gun laws said they felt confident with the procedures in place to keep Capitol Hill safe.

Asked if his state offices would be making any adjustments to how they receive and handle mail, or if they would be exercising additional caution, Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., replied: “No more than we normally do.”

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