WASHINGTON – The Senate went about its business in cramped corners of the Capitol Thursday after backing off a decision to shut down in the face of an anthrax scare.
The House, on the other hand, closed its doors until Tuesday, and earned public scorn and even derision from their partners in the upper chamber.
As the public relations fiasco that was Wednesday's capital anthrax scare went into a second day of clean up, Senate leaders said a lack of communication between the two chambers led to the divide.
"The worst you could say we did not stay in close enough contact with the leadership (of the House)," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on Thursday. "The House was not getting the regular reports as we were."
"Well, I think both branches, in consultation with their members, did what they thought was reasonable and prudent based on the information they had at the time, and certainly, we talked about it with them," said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
The information House leaders had at the time they got during a morning meeting at the White House with the president and Senate leaders. The message included dire warnings about "weapons-grade plutonium," and a deadly bacteria in the ventilation ducts.
House Speaker Dennis Hastet in consultation with his caucus and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., announced Wednesday morning that members of Congress would be vacating the Capitol until an environmental sweep was completed.
Then, from the Senate side, came very public denials and a promise that it would be business as usual in the upper chamber. Senate leaders then downplayed the potency of anthrax and denied it was traveling through the vents.
Muddled message was the maxim of the day.
"It just enforces Americans' view that one hand doesn't know what the other is doing," said Matthew Felling, media director at the Center on Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
House leadership sources say they got burned by the Senators.
At a breakfast meeting at the White House earlier in the day, where it was announced that 31 Senate employees and members of the U.S. Capitol Police had tested positive for exposure to anthrax, the entire congressional leadership agreed to shut down the Capitol for five days.
A source close to the House leadership said the decision to shut down had been made on both sides, expressing anger at the senators' reversal and their hints that Hastert had overreacted. It was the Senate that appeared to have dissent within its ranks, the source said.
"It is regrettable and it's embarrassing for the institution as a whole. There is not as much hysteria as there is confusion in the Senate as to what they agreed to this morning," the source said.
As the day wore on, members of both chambers took pains to stand behind their respective leaders.
"[House Majority Leader] Dick Armey supports the speaker completely and believes the speaker put politics and policy aside for the sake of the people who work in the Capitol complex," said Terry Holt, a spokesperson for Armey, R-Texas.
"We're taking the normal precautions that people would want us to take," insisted Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Felling said to expect more such statements from House members in the coming days, because it was clear who lost this public relations skirmish — the House.
"It would be seen as scurrying away in the face of risk as the Senate bravely soldiers on," he said.