WASHINGTON__It could pass for any office building anywhere in America.
But Tuesday,the General Accounting Office at 441 G. St. NW in Washington became the temporary staff offices for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Displaced from their offices on Capitol Hill since last Wednesday because of Anthrax fears,Colorado House members and their staffs worked out of this non-descript office building about eight blocks from the Capitol.
Their Senate counterparts,meanwhile,plugged away from the Postal Square office building just a few blocks from their normal offices,which were still being swept for traces of anthrax.
Although both chambers were back in session Tuesday,all six office buildings remained closed for inspection and further cleaning.
“So far it is search and discovery,” said Lawrence Pacheco,of his efforts to get settled in the two fifth-floor offices assigned to his boss,Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
“It is hard to keep going like this,” said Carol Shirley,press secretary for Rep. Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.). “It is the simple things,you know,like bookmarks on your own computer. With this it is back to square one.”
Each representative was assigned two GAO offices,equipped with a laptop computer and temporary phone lines. However,not all of the computers or phones were yet operational as of Tuesday afternoon.
Also,congressmen and their staffs have not had access since last week to mail sent to their Washington offices,according to a spokesperson for Colo. republican Rep. Scott McInnis.
Both the House and Senate had planned to reopen their office buildings,three each,at around 5 a.m. Tuesday morning. The House had been closed since Oct. 17 and the Senate since Oct. 19 after,according to congressional leaders,anthrax was released in the Hart Building on Oct. 15 from a letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D).
So far more than 5,000 congressional staffers have been tested for exposure to anthrax. Of those,28 tested positively for exposure to the bacteria.
Over the weekend,officials said a machine in another House office building that bundles mail for Longworth was found to contain anthrax. Nonetheless,congressional leaders,including Daschle,said Tuesday,they are confident Congress will stay in session and continue work throughout the week.
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.),who is a veterinarian,said he has dealt with anthrax before and is confident about his safety on the Hill.
“I don't think there are anthrax spores here otherwise they wouldn't let us in this building,” Allard said while standing just outside the doors to the Senate floor. “We are weary,but we are not going to let this keep us from doing our work.”
Allard was able to secure a small,temporary office in the Capitol. But his staff was confined to the Postal Square office building. Even there,only two staff members were able to work in the office at one time,according to Allard's spokesperson Sean Conway.
Udall tried to keep the closure in perspective.
“Well,you know,the Continental Congress didn't have it this good,” he joked. “Their email didn't work either.”
He did say,though,that without use of his office,work would be more difficult.
“Your office is your home base,” he said. “Now,there are days when I won't see my office because I am busy doing other things. But,in this case,it certainly is a nuisance.”
Although he said his office was substantially impaired,Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) said it was a small problem relatively.
“Frankly I don't care where I am doing my work,” he said after arriving in Washington late Tuesday afternoon. “Having our office building closed won't change the way I vote.”
Nonetheless,most staffers hoped the office buildings would reopen soon – whenever that might be.
“The fact that they are going through all of this,giving us phone lines and computers,makes me think we are going to be here for longer than one day,” Pacheco said.
“As far as I know we are going to be here until they finish checking everything,” Shirley said. “I guess it is better to err on the side of caution.”