WASHINGTON – It was what could only be called a public relations fiasco for the seat of American government.
From the leadership of the House of Representatives came dire warnings about "weapons-grade plutonium," deadly bacteria in the ventilation ducts and word 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.
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.
Catching much of the blame was House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who announced Wednesday morning that Congress would shut down after anthrax was discovered in his own office, a Capitol mailroom and the personal office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Hastert, R-Ill., also suggested that the spores — a "potent" strain of the virus — might be traveling through the ventilation system and in Senate tunnels.
But shortly after that, following a closed-door meeting of the entire Senate, Daschle and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., emerged to say the Senate would remain open. They then downplayed the potency of the anthrax, and denied it was traveling through the vents.
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 houses 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.