White House briefs Congress on contingency government plan

House and Senate leaders Tuesday received a briefing at the White House on the administration's contingency plans to keep essential government functions running in the event of an attack on Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had told reporters last week he had not been made aware of the East Coast site where the administration has been rotating a complement of staff since Sept. 11's terrorist attacks. Daschle said he learned about the facility through media reports.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, have criticized the administration for failing to keep Congress informed of the facility.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Tuesday there is a longstanding conflict between the administration and Congress during times of war over "who controls the flow of information and how." He said he hoped leaders could decide on a "modus operandi" so that leaders are "kept informed, without jeopardizing our effort here," adding, "It's a long conflict, so there's going to have to be some lines of communication."

Besides Daschle, today's briefing included President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., as well as White House congressional liaison Nicholas Calio and Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Daschle afterwards said the briefing clarified the contingency plans that are being made to deal with situations that would disrupt the government. He said that the questions discussed included what circumstances would trigger it, how it would work and what agencies are involved. He also appeared to endorse the use of the facility.

"It's not a shadow government. It's simply just a contingency plan" that needs to involve each branch of government, he said. Daschle said last week that Congress has established a location of its own where legislators could meet if they were unable to assemble in the Capitol.

At a second White House meeting, administration officials told House GOP leaders to expect the fiscal 2002 anti-terrorism supplemental by March 18, according to a Republican source. House leaders had urged the Bush administration to send the package, which is expected to carry a double-digit price tag, sooner so it could be used as the vehicle to carry legislation to increase the statutory debt limit.

The Treasury Department calculates the debt ceiling could be breached as early as the end of the month, and has called on Congress to raise it by $750 million.

Fearing backlash from both voters and Republican budget hawks, GOP leaders want to move the debt limit bill as soon as possible, and see the supplemental as the only "must-pass, must-sign" vehicle on the horizon.

A GOP source said the administration has not made a final call on whether to split the supplemental into homeland security and defense pieces, although it is likely it will be remain in one package.