Republican and Democratic members of Congress drew together in the fading light Tuesday evening on the steps of the Capitol pledging to work together and to support President Bush in fighting terrorism.
"Our prayers and thoughts and words of consolation go out to all those who have suffered. But one thing that happens here in this place is when America suffers, and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and as a government stand united and we stand together," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said, to the applause of several hundred representatives and senators arrayed behind him.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle announced that Congress would convene Wednesday, with both chambers set to consider a joint resolution condemning the attacks and supporting the search for justice.
With that, lawmakers sang "God Bless America" in an unusual expression of emotion.
For much of the day, members of Congress watched events unfold from home after the Capitol was evacuated for the first time in the nation's history.
Daschle was meeting Tuesday morning with his leadership team--a dozen Democratic senators--when the news came on television about planes crashing into the World Trade Center. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) watched the screen, he saw words scrolling across the bottom saying that the Pentagon had been bombed and announced it to his colleagues.
"Everyone stood up, looked out the window and saw smoke billowing up," Durbin said.
The senators left the Capitol and heard a sonic boom as American fighter jets blasted skyward from Andrews Air Force Base. Not knowing the source of the blast, police officers told the legislators to hurry home.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) was walking up the steps of the Senate on Tuesday morning to preside over the chamber when a security officer turned him away. He stood on the lawn of the Capitol, watching the evacuation. "I don't know yet what military answers exist," he said. "As bad as it is, this is just the tip of what it could be."
Not knowing what to do, many members of the House and Senate shuttled in and out of the Capitol Police headquarters for briefings. Congressional leaders, including Daschle and Hastert, were taken to a "safe and secure" location where they could be in contact with Bush, said Lt. Dan Nichols, a spokesman for the Capitol Police.
Lawmakers denounced the terrorist acts and agitated for a speedy return to the historic domed building. Some used the occasion to call for greater military spending; others used it to severely criticize the intelligence community.
"It's the most horrible thing that ever happened to our country," said Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "It is a shock to know how vulnerable we are when four airliners from three major airports are hijacked almost at will. . . . We have had a charmed life until now, and it's all over."
Others denounced the nation's intelligence apparatus for not providing warning of the attacks.
"Our intelligence system failed," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a member of the Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism and the Committee on Armed Services. "Look at this," he said, sweeping his arm across the direction of 1st Street, which separates the Capitol from the Supreme Court building. "This is a war zone."
Weldon said lawmakers who have been advocating more money for education and health care would be forced to reconsider and shore up the military.
"I'm a teacher married to a nurse--none of that matters today," he said.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned against damning the nation's intelligence agencies. "I think we should await assessment until we have the facts," he said.
Members of the House Speaker's Working Group on Terrorism met at police headquarters and said terrorists were mistaken if they thought they could shut down the U.S. government.
"As you can see, Congress is open for business," said Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.), the group's ranking member, as she stood in the street, shut out of the Capitol.
"The terrorists would love to see our government in exile and on the run," said Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), a fellow committee member. "That's not going to happen."
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