On Hill, lawmakers fight fear with ... a steam iron?

The House closes. The Senate won't. Among mixed signals, appeals for calm.

There are no towers of smoking rubble in the US Capitol. The tile floors still gleam. Bronze and marble statues still line the corridors.

But the outward appearance of sameness is deceiving. War has come to Capitol Hill - though the most potent enemy so far is plain old fear.

In this climate of apprehension - where people were already convinced that Congress was a target on Sept. 11 and where a local think tank is considering the topic, "What if Congress were obliterated?" - rumors ran through the halls of Congress, leading to a state of widespread confusion.

In the end, the House of Representatives closed for safety reasons. The Senate soldiered on. The mixed signals leave the populace wondering whom to believe when it comes to assessing the level of danger.

Among the most distressing rumors:

• The anthrax released in Sen. Tom Daschle's offices on Monday was "weapons-grade."

• Anthrax spores had been detected in the Senate ventilation system or in the underground tunnels that link the various office buildings on the Hill. (Both rumors later turned out not to be true.)

After a meeting with President Bush early Wednesday morning, House and Senate leaders left with an understanding that both houses would shut down to allow health officials to sweep the buildings.

But when Senator Daschle met with senators, he found his colleagues determined to stay put. They didn't like the message they felt closing would send to the American people. "We're vowing to keep working, even if it means carrying a briefcase and sitting under a tree," says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, whose Senate offices were among the first to be closed to test for exposure to anthrax.

Early on, the lesson in the Senate was to curb words that fueled fear. In private meetings this week, senators cautioned each other to speak simply. Purge the scare words. Above all, be precise. A new lexicon started to emerge about the anthrax "incident" (not crisis.) Senators were careful to say that people weren't "infected." They were "exposed." Offices weren't being "evacuated" (scare word); instead, the staff was being "excused."

Senators on both sides of the aisle criticized the alarmist talk from the House leadership about the nature of the threat. They especially were concerned that House Speaker Dennis Hastert kept referring to the 31 Senate staffers who had tested positive to exposure as being "infected."

"We've seen 31 positive nasal swabs. That doesn't mean you're sick. It doesn't even mean you will get the disease," says Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, the only physician in the Senate and a respected leader on this issue. "Everyone is going to be OK," he said in a briefing Wednesday.

In the rumor-filled days this week, Senate leadership began setting up regular briefings on the investigation to help curb inaccurate information. On the House side, Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts set up a impromptu briefing for staff on the threat Tuesday.

"We need to calm down this situation. We've got the ideas we need.... We need to see how to deliver these ideas to our people to reduce this level of fear," said Kenneth Alibek, former head of the Soviet Union's offensive biological weapons program. He is now a private consultant in the US on biological weapons defense. "Simple things help. If you steam-iron these letters, they become harmless," he said, responding to a question about what to do about suspicious mail at home. There are frightening prospects in the world of bioterrorism, but the anthrax scare isn't one of them, if properly handled, he said.

For many who work here, it's a tough sell. Many of the people who waited to be tested for exposure weren't even close to Senator Daschle's office the morning the letter was opened. Still, they waited in lines that lasted more than three hours.

"I'm not panicking. I just want to be sure," says Rozana Osborne, who delivered a package to an office down the hall from Daschle's last Friday.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.