In tragedy, Congress follows grim playbook

Ben Pershing
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On a Tuesday morning nine years and four months ago, the House was in the midst of a typical partisan debate over the budget and tax cuts when news trickled in that a pair of planes had hit the World Trade Center towers in New York.

The chamber went into recess, during which a third plane hit the Pentagon, and when the House came back into session just before 10 a.m., a guest chaplain offered a quick prayer. For the rest of the day, a steady procession of lawmakers took to the floor to pay tribute to the victims and to condemn the attacks. They even gathered on the Capitol steps to sing "God Bless America."

"Let me assure you," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said on the floor at the time, "by the time the 435 members of this body have spoken today, the world will have no doubt about who we are, what we will stand for and what we will not stand for."

The comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Saturday's shootings in Arizona is inexact, but some similarities are worth noting.

Then, as now, Congress wrestled with finding an appropriate way to mark a tragedy that made Capitol Hill's major debates of the hour suddenly seem minor.

Then, as now, Congress felt itself under siege, as one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11 appeared to be headed for the Capitol, while Saturday's attack severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six people, including one of her aides.

And in each case, Hill leaders had to find a way to carry on with their jobs without seeming insensitive to the fragile emotions of the public and their own lawmakers.

This week, the House has scrapped recorded votes that had been planned for Tuesday and Wednesday - including a high-profile bill that would repeal President Obama's health-care law. The chamber will take up a resolution Wednesday honoring Giffords and her fellow victims without holding a recorded vote on it.

A bipartisan caucus meeting will be held Wednesday at which House officials will discuss security issues. But it will be up to individual lawmakers to decide whether to come to Washington this week or stay in their districts. (The Senate was already on a scheduled recess.)

"For now, it is my recommendation that all Members of the House who can, return to Washington to honor those who have fallen and to receive any necessary security briefings from the U.S. Capitol Police," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement released Sunday.

The grim playbook for such situations, if one exists, does call for the postponement of substantive legislative business and potentially partisan votes - such as the health-care repeal effort.

In 2001, the House held recorded votes two days after the terrorist attacks. A planned address to a joint session of Congress by the Australian prime minister on Sept. 12 was canceled. All of the week's legislation was directly related to the attacks, and the chamber did not vote on any unrelated measures until Sept. 20.

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