Senate wraps up business as anthrax sweeps begin

The Senate on Thursday conducted normal legislative business on and off the floor even as many staff members stayed home so medical teams could test Senate office buildings for anthrax bacteria. Displaced senators made the best of the situation by operating out of their small Capitol hideaway offices with small complements of staff. "People all across America work in cramped workplaces," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said. "We can do that too." Junior senators without hideaways either set up auxiliary offices or sent their staffs home. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a markup in the President's Room--just off the Senate floor, where it reported out four judges, an assistant attorney general and 13 U.S. attorneys for confirmation. The Senate also passed the $10.5 billion fiscal 2002 Military Construction appropriations conference report on a 96-1 vote, and is scheduled to adjourn today until next Tuesday. With the approval of the Military Construction spending bill today and the FY02 Interior spending bill Wednesday, 11 appropriations bills remain unfinished. Off the floor, negotiators on an anti-terrorism bill hoped to file a final conference report today. Lott said he and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had agreed to try to keep senators from adding a variety of "innovative ideas" to the final bill, although he said bioterrorism language being worked out between Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., could be included. Lott said he expected the conference report to pass early next week. Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Republican and Democratic staff would meet today to negotiate on health provisions of the president's proposed economic stimulus package. He said staff would also meet with the IRS to discuss the mailing of possible rebate checks. As for the size of the package, Grassley said it is "not the $75 billion that is in dispute . It's how much is done on unemployment compensation and health insurance versus the tax cuts." It was unclear whether the movement on nominations would free up stalled fiscal 2002 appropriations bills. Republicans have been blocking consideration of the Foreign Operations spending bill to protest what they consider slow movement of judicial nominations, and a cloture vote is scheduled Tuesday. Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., commenting on the recent progress, said, "It's a step in the right direction." Lott said the plan was to open up the three closed Senate office buildings Monday after the sweeps are completed. He said he planned to be in his Capitol office Monday. Roger Gibbs, who is coordinating the environmental sweeps, said there were no plans to sweep the Senate side of the Capitol because it was so far from where anthrax had been found. Access to House office buildings is expected to resume at 5 a.m. Tuesday, when parking garages will be reopened, and the House will return to work at 12:30 p.m. that day. Lott indicated that further testing of employees has stopped and there have been no new tests that have come out positive for the presence of anthrax beyond the 31 employees who have already tested positive. He said there have been no reports of employees becoming infected.

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