It’s Business as Usual in Most Offices, Despite Elevated Fears

Posted February 14, 2003 at 2:45pm

Denying rumors that he allowed the Presidents Day recess to proceed because Members were too worried to remain in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said threats of a terrorist attack played no role in his decision.

Frist told Roll Call he did not back away from his threat to keep Senators in town through the recess to finish debate over judicial nominee Miguel Estrada because Members were scared.

“To the best of my knowledge, that is not true,” Frist said.

In fact, a Frist spokesman said, Republican leaders decided the best way to curb Democrats’ filibuster of the appeals court nominee was to let them go home and face a grassroots protest to their maneuver.

Democratic leaders, who were holding a press conference Friday to object to the funding for emergency personnel recommended in President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget, agreed that that Members were not turning tail.

Countering rumors that the administration has information the Capitol was specifically being targeted by terrorists, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said Congressional leaders were briefed Thursday and told no such thing.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sounded a similar note at her weekly briefing Thursday.

“I don’t see that Members have some concern about personal safety, about staying here in Washington,” she said. “Our responsibility is to protect the American people. It’s very important for us to be here to do that, and I have not picked up any hesitation or anxiety about that from my colleagues,” she said.

Speaking from the floor Friday, Frist said: “We here in the Senate have a great honor to serve in this beautiful chamber, in this beautiful Capitol building, and it is indeed the symbol of our nation’s strength and our nation’s purpose. …

“As we speak, our enemies, we know, are plotting their evil designs, we know that. We know that. And yet, we continue to carry out our duties as United State senators and citizens.”

That is not to say precautionary measures are not under way or that Members are oblivious to the palpable feeling of fear in Washington.

“In our own office here, we have ‘go’ bags and quick hoods and an evacuation plan,” Pelosi said.

And while business proceeded as usual in most cases, some offices did in fact close down Friday, including those of Senate Intelligence ranking member Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).

But in most cases, everyone came in to work.

“I don’t think the terrorist threats are slowing down business,” said Bill Burton, spokesman for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “Folks on the Hill are just as anxious as everyone else about the terrorist threats, but people are still going to work.”

“So far no one in our office has expressed concern,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass)’s spokesman, David Wade. “We work for a tough guy so I expect our office to display a higher profile in courage.”

But that’s not to say they aren’t prepared for a disaster. All Senate offices are required by the Sergeant-at-Arms to have an emergency plan, and some were taking extra precautions such as brushing up on safety procedures or being more cautious overall.

Sen. Larry Craig’s (R-Idaho) office has taken the evacuation plan further than required, even practicing an “in-house drill today for the staff,” according to spokesperson Will Hart.

The offices of Sens. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are both structured so staffers can work from home if they choose. However, no staff member from either office has opted to work from home for safety reasons, according to the Senators’ press teams.

“We have a standard telecommuting policy, not based on terrorism, that staff can work from home based on their individual needs and ability to do their job from home,” said Nelson Communications Director David DiMartino.

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) office does not have a telecommuting policy, but Communications Director Adam Elggren said their liberal leave policy allows staffers who feel unsafe to take time off if they feel they need it.

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) staff is all present and accounted for, but spokeswoman Joan Kirchner said she’s “sure there are a lot of staff that would like to be home.”

Anna Palmer and E. Annie Hall contributed to this report.