Members Fear For Safety of Families

Posted March 12, 2003 at 6:40pm

While officials continue to prepare for the possibility of a catastrophic incident that could require Congress to convene outside of the Capitol, many Members are expressing reluctance to divert to an undisclosed location without their spouses and children.

“They have all these plans about where you go and how you get there, but the fact is if there is an act of terrorism committed, most Members of Congress, like every other American, will want to go and make sure their family is safe,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

This disquietude comes as the Senate Rules and Administration and House Administration panels are planning to hold a bicameral hearing on Capitol security within the next several weeks.

With the Capitol Police officers toting semiautomatic weapons serving as a visible reminder of threats to the Capitol complex, and military conflict in Iraq seeming imminent, personal safety has become an increasingly persistent topic among Members and staff in recent days.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), who was whisked away to various secure locations during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said he would not agree to leave his family again in the future.

“I would not feel as comfortable doing that a second time,” said Daschle. “You want to be a good soldier and do what you are told in situations like that, but I also want to be a good husband and father and I feel just as strongly about my need to be with my family.”

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who lives near the Capitol with his wife, Suzanne, said there is a concern about safety among many Members’ spouses, particularly those who live on Capitol Hill.

“The reason there is more sensitivity here is because this is viewed as a target area, and so there should be more sensitivity given to those who live in the area,” he added.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said many lawmakers have approached him with concerns about what would happen to their families in the event that Members were taken to a secure location.

“Members have spoken to me about a series of issues with thoughts about family. It’s tough,” he said, but added that such realities are “part of the way of life.”

He said a choice not to head to the undisclosed location is entirely an “individual Member’s decision. I wouldn’t fault them.”

But Ney indicated that no plans are in place to accommodate families. “It would be hard to physically pick people up,” he said, referring to the considerable logistical hurdles in securing Members’ families.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) echoed Ney’s inference that continuity-of-government plans don’t include evacuating families, pointing out the difficulty in simply rounding up Members to move them to a secure location.

But evidencing the seriousness with which the leadership is taking the issue, Frist held a conference call with lawmakers’ spouses two weeks ago to discuss security concerns.

“The purpose of it was to provide a forum that addressed issues on their mind as it came to [the] specific security risk of being in the Senate family, questions that might not be easily answered by reading or by relying on the media,” Frist said. “In the room, I had available representatives of Capitol law enforcement, specific representatives from the medical community and the [Attending Physician’s] office and Sergeant-at-Arms so that we could answer any questions.”

As for his own plans in the event of a disaster, Frist said the situation would dictate his actions.

“It depends on circumstances,” Frist said. “If it is in the best interests of the nation, I will go where I feel that is the case.”

Unlike Daschle and Frist, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) doesn’t have family living in the Washington area. Pelosi said since “geographic” obstacles prevent her from being with family, she would immediately take part in continuity-of-government operations.

“It is not about being at the table because of [being a] Democrat [or] Republican,” Pelosi said. “It is about being at the table because of the diversity of our Caucus and the different perspective that I bring to the discussion about how we go forward” after a catastrophe.

Earlier this week, Senate Republican chairmen dedicated a portion of their traditionally legislative-intensive weekly meeting to discuss security concerns.

And on Wednesday morning the Democratic Caucus hosted Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer and House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood for a discussion of what steps Members should be taking and where they would be taken if the Capitol was evacuated. The Republican Conference received a similar briefing last month.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) described the meeting as a “security briefing for contingencies” that included a demonstration of the new campuswide Annunciator system and the Quick 2000 escape hoods and discussion of evacuation plans and locations.

“There is a whole evacuation plan for staff as well,” Menendez said. “There are places that they would evacuate to.”

But a Democratic leadership aide present said that many staff feel “kind of cynical because we know [Members] are taken care of.”

Each office is supposed to have an emergency action plan in place with at least two scenarios staffers would follow if they had to leave the Capitol.

“Not to be crass here, but if we are talking about continuity of government, family members don’t provide that continuity,” the aide said. “Staff can actually do something to help continuity of government. They are largely forgetting about us.”

The aide also said Gainer and Livingood indicated that perimeter security would be tightened in light of last week’s incident involving two individuals entering the Crypt with faux devices that were made to look like explosives. The two said the process for screening visitors in the galleries would be “just like at an airport now.”

But Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) stressed that he wants officials to remember that the Capitol “is a people’s house, [and] something like that makes us think even more about screening people without offending them or making it more onerous.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who attended the briefing, remarked that it wasn’t “a very full house.”

“The ones that were there were the ones who probably already have evacuation plans” for their staffs, she said. “The people they need to get to are the Members who are not showing up.”

“They told us where our staffs would go. Everybody’s worried about that,” Woolsey added. “We are [especially] concerned about our interns. We know the home phone numbers for all our interns,” she said of her office, explaining that interns’ parents probably would be the most worried if something happened in the Capitol.

As for the joint chamber hearings on security, Lott indicated that plans are to hold at least one within “a couple of weeks.”

Although staff for both panels are still working out timing and details, Lott said Ney agreed to the plan in principle. The idea of the hearing, he said, is to get “a report about what has been done to upgrade security at the Capitol.”

“We want to make sure we are fulfilling our roles,” Lott said.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.