Terrorism Rends Buildings, Unites Congress

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The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last Tuesday has galvanized not only the country but also the U.S. Congress. Politicians who were bitter enemies last Monday were working hand-in-hand last week in bipartisanship Washington hasn't seen since the days after Pearl Harbor.

In my role as congressional observer, I watched congressmen and senators who once could barely stand to be in the same room suddenly working through thorny problems together. George W. Bush's political opponents suddenly voiced unabashed admiration for how he handled himself in meetings. Some examples of what I discovered in my reporting:

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  • Wednesday morning, Sept. 12: Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid walked out of the White House after a meeting between the President and Democratic leaders. He had these thoughts as he strolled to his car to drive back to the Capitol. "The thing that I personally saw was the intensity of the President," Reid, a Democrat, told me. "I've been in a number of meetings with him and he's kind of a hale, hearty, pat-you-on-the-back-nice-man. But here he was a nice man but extremely intense. Obviously he was really in tune with what the program was going to be. He was really sincere and intent. Everyone got the impression of how this had affected him personally."

  • Thursday morning, Sept. 13: The country's most powerful legislators gathered together on couches and chairs in Speaker Dennis Hastert's private office in the Capitol. Hastert and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt sat together on a couch. In the previous two days, they had talked to each other more than they had in the entire past year. (So bitter had been their political feuding in the past, when Hastert had information to pass along to Gephardt he had Minority Leader Dick Armey make the phone call.) Now Hastert and Gephardt sat side by side — grumpy old men who had made up, at least for the moment. On another couch, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Minority Leader Trent Lott sat together. The two men had been on cordial terms before the attack, but were no less rivals than Hastert and Gephardt. The remaining chairs were occupied by senior members of both parties.

    An hour and a half later these men would join their colleagues in a bipartisan lunch for Democratic and Republican members — the first, besides the traditional inaugural lunch, that anyone could remember ever being held in the Congress's modern history. But for the moment, the leaders of both parties were meeting privately to make the first tentative decisions about how Congress should proceed if the country must go to war.

    Hastert served as the moderator, staying mostly silent himself and recognizing others to speak. The faces in the room looked worried and tired. Many had gotten only a few hours sleep the past two nights. And they were still feeling emotional about what the country had been through. "We're not Democrats here and we're not Republicans," Daschle said at one point to the group. "We're Americans. So let's do the right thing." Others nodded their heads to second that sentiment.

    The evening before, Vice President Dick Cheney had handed Hastert a joint resolution authorizing the use of force. The leaders discussed whether Congress should go even further and approve a declaration of war. "Wait a minute," one of the leaders in the Hastert meeting said. "You realize the insurance companies won't pay." Silence in the room. It was true: Most insurance policies are written in a way that exempts the companies from paying for damages in a declared war. Congress, suddenly, was faced with a stark realization. A declaration of war could end up allowing the insurance companies to wiggle out of paying damages for the devastation at the World Trade Center and other New York buildings. Shelve that idea, the leaders decided. Congress would later pass a resolution just authorizing Bush to use force against terrorists.

    The second item on the agenda was money. There would be no arguments: A truce had been called in the bitter political war over dipping into the hundreds of billions of dollars piling up in the Social Security surplus. They'd dip into the fund. The men huddled in Hastert's office debated how much would be needed. The White House already had told Congress it wanted $20 billion to help rebuild the damaged Pentagon, deal with the New York catastrophe and bolster security. But $20 billion might not be enough, one of the leaders said. "You're probably right," Lott answered. Who knew what the final tab could be — maybe as high as $500 billion in the end. But the Congressional and Senate leaders in this room knew that money gets wasted when it's appropriated in the heat of the moment. "I'm an American first," Rep. David Obey, the Appropriations Committee's senior Democrat, told the others. "I want to turn these attackers into fairy dust. But we need to look at the fine print of what we're doing here."

    The other congressional barons agreed. "What we don't want to do is give up our constitutional powers and make it a blank check," one participant told me. They ordered their staffs to move quickly on the administration's emergency funding request, but to move carefully on drafting the legislation. Congress didn't have to go overboard and approve the full load now. Remember, Obey told the group: After the Pearl Harbor attack, Congress passed 12 supplemental appropriations bills to fund its recovery. By the end of last week, Congress appropriated $40 billion, kicking in $20 billion extra for New York.

  • Thursday afternoon, Sept. 13: The four Senators from the states under attack — Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton of New York, and John Warner and George Allen of Virginia — walked into the Oval Office for a private meeting with Bush. Bush "seemed very calm, confident, relaxed and in charge," New York's senior senator told to me later. Schumer and the others were struck by how the private Bush seemed so much more the commander in chief and the dominant figure — a far cry from the the-deer-in-headlights aura he gave off in some TV shots immediately following the attack.

    As the four Senators settled into their chairs, Bush laid out for them in precise detail his thoughts at the moment and his plans. Bush had two points he wanted to make. "We have to be resolute," he told them gravely. "If after the World Series America forgets our mission and our duty, we'll lose." Bush was just as firm on his second point. "It is really important not just to go after the terrorists, but the people who harbor them," he said. Important to go after not only the states that support them, but the so-called "non-profit organizations" that slip them money on the side.

    Allen asked about how far along the White House was in determining who the culprits were and what the retaliation would be. The CIA had briefed the Hill that they were moving fast. Bush was circumspect. Bush's emotions were roiling inside him, Allen told me afterwards. It seemed to Allen that the President didn't want to dwell too much on the human loss because it choked him up when he talked about it. "He wants to be a strong leader, while compassionate," Allen said.

    Schumer stood up and made a pitch for another $20 billion for New York, on top of the $20 billion Bush initially requested. At that point, only Daschle and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd had signed off on the extra funds. Schumer and Clinton had been lobbying all day to double the money. "We need your support," Schumer told Bush. He expected him to say something like, "We'll look into it." Bush didn't.

    "You got it," the President said simply. Bush lived up to that promise. Thursday night, as some conservative Republicans tried to undo the $20 billion extra for New York, Bush told them to back off and approve the money. "He was being so generous," Schumer recalled. "This was not politically in his interest."

    Fifteen minutes later, the four Senators and Bush adjourned to the larger Cabinet Room where the congressional delegations from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut sat waiting to meet with the President. Schumer at one point stood up in that meeting and recounted how Bush had just told him that New York would get the extra $20 billion. When he sat down, he leaned over to Bush, who was sitting next to him. "You know, Mr. President, there was a lump in my throat when I said that," he whispered to Bush. "I could hardly speak." Bush patted Schumer's knee and said, "Well, that doesn't happen very much." Bush knows Schumer isn't exactly shy with the press.

    "Well, Mr. President, I'll be speechless for $20 billion any time you want," Schumer answered. Bush chuckled and patted him on the back.