By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
For emotional wallop, there are few rivals to the windswept, grassy field outside of Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.
But for three years, that field has made do with a makeshift monument while one member of Congress, Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), has blocked a $10 million request to buy the land for a permanent memorial to the 40 passengers and crew members who overpowered hijackers bent on crashing their jet into the Capitol or the White House.
The families of the Flight 93 passengers and crew will be in Washington tomorrow, this time intent on challenging the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, who oversees funding for federal acquisition of property. With a major motion picture on the doomed flight premiering tonight, a showdown on the issue is the last clash that embattled Republicans want.
"We need to build a memorial for these people," said Rep. William Shuster (R-Pa.), whose district includes Shanksville. "These 40 people were the first counterattack of the war on terror, and they were victorious. We owe them a great debt of gratitude."
For Taylor, a large landowner in the mountains of western Carolina, the issue comes down to principle: The federal government is already the largest landowner in the country, and he believes that no additional tax dollars should go to more land buying for this or any other memorial. Beyond that, the families have committed to raising half the $60 million needed to build the memorial but so far have raised $7.5 million. Taylor is concerned that the federal government will be left holding the bag.
Neither Taylor nor his press secretary returned phone calls and e-mails yesterday. His chief of staff, Sean Dalton, would not comment.
GOP aides familiar with the issue said Taylor's resolute stance made sense shortly after passage in 2002 of an act authorizing the memorial. The original designs were expansive, the acreage perhaps excessive, and there were real questions about how many tourists would visit the remote site in Somerset County. Taylor infuriated some Flight 93 family members by suggesting a more fitting tribute would be a scholarship fund.
"We believe the land speaks to anyone who goes there and sees the site," said Patrick White, whose cousin Louis Joseph Nacke II died on Flight 93. "It is very moving."
Family members say they can show why about 1,200 acres are needed for access to the site and to show the drama of an airplane slamming into the earth at more then 500 mph. As for fundraising, Universal Pictures has promised to donate 10 percent of the gross receipts that its film, "United 93," garners this opening weekend.
House Republicans worry that Taylor is not doing himself any favors, standing against the memorial fund in the midst of a tough reelection campaign against former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler.
And the White House has joined the fray. This year, the request -- for the first $5 million installment -- came from President Bush and the National Park Service. Former White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. has leaned on Taylor, as has his successor, Joshua B. Bolten. On Thursday, Shuster wrote a "Dear Colleague" letter to House members to ratchet up the pressure, offering up a form letter addressed to Taylor.
All that pressure will come to a head early next month, when Taylor's subcommittee drafts the spending bill that will fund the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service for $26 billion for the fiscal year that begins in October. Republican aides are confident that a fight over 0.02 percent of that total will be resolved in favor of the memorial.
"We're going to have to prevail on our member from North Carolina to come to the right position on this," said one senior House Republican aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to counter a lawmaker's position. "This is not worth this fight."
"We're optimistic and hopeful this time around," White said.