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The Nation

Congress Makes Solemn Trip to N.Y., Where It All Began

Tribute: A meeting in the nation's onetime capital marks upcoming anniversary of attacks. 'We are with you,' Sen. Lott tells residents.

September 07, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In a pilgrimage to the scene of the nation's deadliest terrorist assault, Congress paid homage Friday to this stricken metropolis and returned to its own roots with an extraordinary meeting in Lower Manhattan to mark the approaching anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The House and Senate held a solemn joint meeting in New York's Federal Hall--360 days after terrorist hijackers smashed two jets into the World Trade Center and 212 years after Congress last convened here.

More than 300 of the 535 lawmakers trekked here, many by chartered train, for only the second meeting of Congress outside Washington in two centuries.

Congressional leaders and Vice President Dick Cheney, in his duties as president of the Senate, used the occasion to mourn the more than 2,800 people who died in the collapse of the twin towers just a few blocks away, and to promote the war against terrorists.

"As a nation born in revolution, we know that freedom comes at a very high price, and we have no intention of letting it slip away," Cheney told the lawmakers, reminding them that the war on terrorism began the hour New York and the nation fell under attack.

He and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) presided from a dais with gavels brought from Washington. Behind them hung a giant American flag. Before them, senators, representatives and other dignitaries were packed into a circular chamber decorated with artifacts from the first presidential inaugural, including a wrought-iron balustrade and stone platform from the balcony where George Washington took his oath of office.

The large turnout on a day lawmakers ordinarily would be scattered across the country, campaigning or working in their home states, underscored how New York's recovery and the war on terrorism have become potent national causes.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said the Sept. 11 terrorists had failed. "They sought to destroy America by attacking what they thought were our greatest strengths," Daschle said. "But they did not understand. The true strength of America is not steel or concrete. It is our belief in the ideals enshrined in our Constitution."

For New Yorkers, the leaders had a direct message.

"We are with you," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "We will continue our efforts to help you rebuild, physically and spiritually."

Lott added: "From this city's one day of horror, out of all the loss and sorrow, has come a strength, a resolve, a determination which--from Manhattan to Mississippi--now binds us together for the mighty work that lies ahead."

With support from President Bush, Congress has appropriated more than $20 billion in disaster aid since the Sept. 11 attacks, in which hijackers struck New York and the Pentagon and crashed another airplane in rural Pennsylvania. Most of the relief is bound for this city, which suffered the worst damage. More is likely to flow from Washington in coming years.

During their one-hour meeting, lawmakers reaffirmed a congressional resolution of solidarity with the city and heard speeches, prayers and poetry.

They then stood, held hands and loudly sang "God Bless America" with a high school choir. It was an emotional repeat rendition of an anthem that many House members had sung the evening of Sept. 11 from the Capitol steps.

Afterward, lawmakers lunched at the nearby Regent Hotel in an event hosted by the mayor who is counting on Washington's largess. Michael R. Bloomberg noted that the Annenberg Foundation had paid $1 million to underwrite the ceremonial meeting. And Bloomberg did not forget to thank the keepers of the federal purse.

"We know you were there for us when we needed you," Bloomberg said. "And we will be there for you if you ever need us."

In a final event, the lawmakers journeyed to the south ledge of the cavernous pit at ground zero. At the great void where the World Trade Center once stood, congressional leaders gave New Yorkers a white floral wreath and members bowed their heads in prayer. Many had been there before, seeing the hulking, smoking ruins soon after the attack and subsequently inspecting the excavation of rubble.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was awed. He had flown past the skyscrapers in a commuter jet on the morning of Sept. 11, minutes before the hijacked jets struck. He recalled staring at the north tower through his window.

"It was as brilliant and shining as the day," Foley said. Now, he mused, "this is scarred land."

A sizable group of Californians came to pay tribute. Two Democrats, Reps. Sam Farr of Carmel and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, recalled a handful of victims of Sept. 11 with ties to their home districts: a flight attendant, a physician's son, a married couple. "We see how interconnected we all are," Schiff said.

But while the day focused on a modern national calamity, for the 107th Congress, history echoed here from a more distant past.

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