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AMERICA ATTACKED | POLITICAL REACTION

Uprooted but Resolute, Congress Vows Justice

Reaction: Lawmakers are evacuated from the U.S. Capitol after the attacks but plan to reconvene today.

September 12, 2001|JANET HOOK and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In an instant Tuesday, the focus of the nation's congressional leaders shifted from the sagging economy to national security.

After the initial chaos of the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol and surrounding buildings after terrorist attacks here and in New York, lawmakers of all political stripes talked of war, Pearl Harbor and America's refusal to buckle to terrorists.

"This is our second Pearl Harbor, right here in the nation's capital and New York City," said a somber Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

"I join the president and the congressional leadership in declaring our resolute determination to respond to this horrific attack on our nation," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "Any country or other entity who would harbor the terrorists responsible for this tragedy is an enemy of the United States and we must respond militarily."

Congress had been forced to suspend its session Tuesday morning amid concern the Capitol would come under attack. But after the initial confusion of the evacuation, during which many lawmakers were unsure where to go or what to do, they resolved to show that the work of the U.S. government would not be sidetracked. With that in mind, Congress is scheduled to reconvene this morning.

"I think we should go back in session as quick as we can," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "They win when we are not seen. They win when we are not in session. They win when they do anything to change the way this great nation runs."

Lawmakers had discussed convening Tuesday night to send a message of their determination. Instead, congressional leaders, who had been under protection much of the day at a site outside Washington, led a gathering of lawmakers on the Capitol steps aimed at sending a message of bipartisanship.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told the gathering that "when America suffers and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a country and a Congress stand united, and we stand together."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said: "We will speak with one voice to condemn these attacks, to comfort the victims and their families, to commit our full support to the effort to bring those responsible to justice."

After the moment of silence, the lawmakers sang "God Bless America." Many held hands and embraced.

How Tuesday's attacks could have happened on U.S. soil, and what should have been done to prevent them, will no doubt occupy much of Congress' time in the weeks and months to come.

"I'm asking myself if it can happen in America," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said shortly after the Capitol was evacuated. "Obviously, it can."

"America has been brought to its knees today by evil and cowardly people," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "They will not get away with it."

Inevitably, the second-guessing and criticism began.

"This obviously was a failure of great dimension. We had no specific warning of the U.S. being attacked," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) after being briefed by CIA Director George J. Tenet. "This is a wake-up call for America. The bottom line is we were basically caught flat-footed."

Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.) said the attacks raise the question of who the United States' enemies really are in the post-Cold War era. Referring to the former Soviet Union, he said, "That Russian bear was replaced by a thousand vipers."

Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) was in a committee meeting in which the subjects included anti-terrorism spending when he was forced to leave the Capitol. "This is the most serious act of terrorism in American history. and attitudes will forever be changed," Moran said.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who favors increased defense spending, said it is time for Congress to concentrate on national security. "When is America going to wake up and stop the 30-second sound bite about who's better on education and who's better on prescription drugs?" Weldon asked.

Former President Clinton called on Americans to support whatever action President Bush deems necessary.

"We should not be second-guessing. We should be supporting him," Clinton said in a phone call with Associated Press from Australia.

"The main thing," Clinton added, "is we must send a clear and unambiguous message to the world that the people of America are completely, 100% united and we're going to follow our leaders and support whatever action [Bush] takes."

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Times staff writers Richard Simon and Lisa Getter contributed to this story.

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