Senators Scramble During Ricin Scare

One senator headed home. Another headed to the House.

The nation's senators and their staffs, barred from their offices during Tuesday's ricin scare on Capitol Hill, scrambled to set up shop elsewhere and get back to work.

Authorities did not know when they could reopen the three massive Senate office buildings that were shut down. Though Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) promised to keep the Capitol open, meetings across the complex were canceled and votes and progress on legislation postponed.

"We're trying to keep things going," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search), R-Texas. "We'll just see if people feel like they can do amendments and have enough staff to be helpful, and go forward."

"It's going to be hard," she said.

Tuesday's scene was similar to that of two years ago, when anthrax-filled letters were mailed to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., resulting in some Capitol Hill offices' being shut down for three months. Senior lawmakers retreated to their Capitol "hideaway" offices. Junior lawmakers who have too little seniority to get one of the limited hideaways, like Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., searched for desk space somewhere else.

Talent found an open desk in the office of a fellow Missourian, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt.

"I figured I'd try and grab that before anybody else got it," Talent said with a grin. "I'm sure this is going to slow down mail. My concern is that I'll lose mail from back home."

Seeking a computer hookup, Sen. Charles E. Schumer eschewed his Capitol hideaway for the modest town house several blocks away that he shares with several other lawmakers.

"The real problem is not space -- it's computer connections," said Schumer, D-N.Y. "My hideaway is sort of useless because we don't have computer connections."

"The mood among members is, `Let's open the place up. This stuff isn't transmittable through the air,' but they want to check all the letters," Schumer said, heading for the door.

Work ground to a near-standstill. Although lawmakers took to the Senate floor to debate a major transportation bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said paperwork and other materials necessary to mark up the legislation were stored in the Dirksen office building, where the ricin was found in a mailroom.

"Our ability to offer votes and have amendments, to a certain extent, are affected, but our strong desire is to proceed with the deliberations that began again this morning on the highway bill," Daschle said. "This is a very important piece of legislation. We don't want to hold up the bill."

The office buildings were expected to be closed at least for several days as authorities scrutinize congressional mail. Daschle said the Senate would postpone all votes until Wednesday at the earliest.

E-mails were sent to Senate staffers around 5 a.m. and advised to work from home. Jen Burita, spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spent the day at her suburban Virginia house, trying to focus on her Senate duties and resist being distracted by her 14-month-old son.

"Anyone with small children knows it's really hard to get work done with a small child around," Burita said with a laugh.

"We did learn some lessons from the anthrax a few years ago and were prepared to work from home if necessary," Burita said. "I never thought about packing a bag for today or however long we're going to be out. It's definitely an inconvenience, but the most important thing is to make sure staff is safe."