In Congress, Tributes Take Priority
By Juliet Eilperin
On Friday afternoon the offices of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) were a scene of celebration, as staff members reveled in the passage of a Republican health care bill. Now the rooms housing Congress's legislative engine have fallen silent, with a section boarded off and a black crepe ribbon framing the tall, closed doors.
Instead of focusing on campaign reform or rounding up votes for appropriations bills, whip aides spent the day organizing passage of a memorial resolution honoring the two officers who died Friday defending the Capitol.
"Everyone's trying to do their work, but the events of last Friday are so overwhelming it's very difficult to move forward," explained DeLay spokesman John Feehery.
The sudden transformation of the whip's suite, which served as the site of last week's deadly confrontation between Detective John M. Gibson and alleged gunman Russell Eugene Weston Jr., highlights lawmakers' current predicament. House leaders have agreed to put much of their business aside for the next week, even as they face a crushing workload they must address before adjourning for the month on Aug. 7.
House leaders had already planned an ambitious schedule, including three annual spending bills and campaign finance reform. But the House will conduct no legislative business today and hold truncated sessions on Thursday and Friday so members can attend the funerals of Gibson and Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, respectively.
In a floor speech yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said it was "totally appropriate" that the House halted business to consider a resolution honoring the two men and would memorialize them in the Rotunda, "as a reminder of how safety and freedom come at a personal cost."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opened the Senate on a somber note at noon with a formal tribute to the officers.
"It was a death in the family," he said. "Private First Class Jacob Joseph Chestnut and Detective John Michael Gibson were members of our congressional family. They died defending us. They died defending this Capitol building, this temple of law, where armed violence is a sacrilege against our democratic institutions."
The day was filled with several gestures commemorating the unusual nature of the tragedy. Gingrich personally thanked President Clinton on the floor for allowing Gibson to be interred in Arlington Cemetery and for cooperating on the ceremony in the Rotunda today. Lawmakers from both parties planned to meet on the floor last night to receive a security briefing from House Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood.
In another show of respect late in the day, senators stood at their desks with a formality normally reserved for treaty ratifications and other historic actions as the roll call vote was called for the joint resolution honoring the officers.
The vote came as the Senate was beginning the last week of work before its month-long summer recess, but it appeared to be on a long, slow slide toward vacation, even before the tragedy struck.
Lott noted the Senate has completed seven of its 13 annual spending bills and planned to act on another two before its planned departure on Friday. It also planned to complete action on a bill to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that restricted expansion of credit unions.
Chances of action on managed-care legislation -- which was to have been the big issue of the final week -- were already fading because of the inability of Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to come to terms on procedures for consideration of amendments. Lott said yesterday he still hoped to bring the bill up, with or without an agreement, but appeared less adamant than he was last week.
Moreover, he said, it would be inappropriate to "start pounding the table" over health care or anything else at this point.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company