House of Representatives to Adjourn for 'Environmental Sweep'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - After conferring with President Bush and newly-appointed Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives has decided to adjourn for five days, beginning Wednesday evening, so the Capitol complex can undergo an "environmental sweep" for anthrax spores.

click to enlarge"We thought it best and prudent in this situation to do an environmental sweep," House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said, "to make sure that we do not have any anthrax spores loose and moving around any of our office buildings or in the Capitol itself."

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) says the best way to determine with certainty that there is no risk of anthrax exposure is to evacuate the House and its office buildings so that health officials can conduct thorough testing.

"This is the new world we're in, but we approach this in a calm and collected way," he said. "That's what we urge and hope all of our citizens will do."

The decision comes a little more than 24 hours after an envelope containing anthrax was opened by a staff member in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) legislative office in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Thirty-one people who were in the area at and after the time the envelope was opened have tested positive for exposure to the bacteria. Testing positive for exposure is not an indication that an individual has been infected with anthrax, health officials said.

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Wednesday that, in addition to Daschle's legislative office, the Capitol mailroom has tested positive for the presence of anthrax spores. Hastert also confirmed earlier speculation that the spores received in Daschle's office were of a higher quality than had been previously described.

"We know that it was sophisticated," he said. "It was almost an aerosol type of a situation, the powder. When they opened the envelope it sent out a flume."

Despite the known exposure on the Senate side of the Capitol complex, Daschle says the Senate will remain in session.

"It is my strong determination and Senator Lott's as well that we will not let this stop the work of this Senate," he said. "There will be a vote this afternoon. We will be in session and have a vote or votes tomorrow. And I am absolutely determined to ensure that the Senate continues to do its work."

Neither Daschle nor Lott would address the House's decisions to adjourn earlier than scheduled this week.

Hastert also revealed that a suspicious package was received by his office and that staff who were in the area when the package was determined to be questionable have undergone anthrax screenings. The speaker says he has not been personally tested.

He also acknowledged that there are members of the House of Representatives who do not agree with the decision to adjourn early. But he pointed out that many members wanted to adjourn Tuesday following the confirmation that the powder in the letter mailed to Daschle was anthrax.

Hastert says the decision to skip legislative business on Thursday is not the least bit drastic, considering that the House was already scheduled to be adjourned Friday and Monday.

"There are people who would like us to fear. There will be people in this world who would like us to be afraid. There will be people in this world who would like us not to do the people's business," he said. "We thought it was a prudent step to make sure that these buildings and this campus is free of spores so that we can go back and do the work of the American people, and that's what we intend to do."