Threat of Anthrax Shutters One of the Nation's Most Visible Workplaces

The U.S. House of Representatives is closed for business today, for the first time its history, as workers and offices are tested for anthrax exposure.

On a normal day, a visitor to the chamber and offices of the U.S. House of Representatives sees fresh-faced interns, harried staffers, and dignified congressional members walking through the halls, having animated discussions, going about the business of government. Today is not a normal day.

Today, a visitor to the offices of a member of Congress could be wearing a HAZMAT suit and probably is involved in an extensive environmental testing and cleanup effort.

Following the news that some 31 Congressional staffers have tested positive for anthrax exposure, the House has closed and will reopen on Tuesday. Yesterday, hundreds of Congressional staffers lined up to be swabbed to determine if they were exposed to anthrax.

Fears of possible anthrax exposure mounted in Washington when Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle announced several days ago that some of his staff members had come into contact with a letter contaminated with anthrax.

Atty. Gen John Ashcroft said preliminary analysis shows that the anthrax sent to Daschle''s office was "virulent, strong, very serious." Officials also said that the anthrax sent to Daschle was "professionally" manufactured, increasing fears of organized bioterrorism.

"There has been some attempt to collect it, refine it and make it more concentrated," said Dr. Scott Lillibridge, who heads up the office for National Security and Bioterrorism in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lillibridge and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told a congressional subcommittee that the letter to Daschle was "a very serious attempt at anthrax poisoning." Thompson stopped short of saying that the anthrax was weapons-grade.

Doctors note that the anthrax sent to Daschle is treatable by all antibiotics, including penicillin.

As for the shutdown of their offices for environmental testing, most members of Congress said that they supported it.

"It''s a matter of occupational safety," said Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). "We have to protect the safety of our employees."

Kucinich said he plans to work out of his district office in the Cleveland area, maintaining close contact with staffers who remain in Washington. It''s business as usual, according to him.

Kucinich echoes House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who commented, ''''There are people who would like us to fear. There are people in this world that would like us to be afraid. There are people that would like us not to do the people''s business."

Hastert said that Congress "thought it was a prudent step to make sure that these buildings and this campus [are] free of spores so we can go back and continue to do the work of the American people."

Others disagreed with the shutdown. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-MA) said that closing the House "sends a bad signal." There is no threat to any particular building, he noted, adding, "we could have moved for a few hours while they looked at one building and then rolled on and swept the next one. It''s an overreaction, and it doesn''t look good."

The Senate plans to meet, though the three Senate office buildings will be closed for environmental examination.

Homeland Safety Director Tom Ridge, speaking at a press conference this morning, tried to reassure the public, noting that "thousands of people have been tested and thousands of environmental samples have been gathered" at the Capitol "and only five people have tested positive for anthrax exposure."

While House members played up the seriousness of the situation, Senate members tended to play it down. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott even went so far as to say, "There is no risk here at the Capitol."

by Sandy Smith

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