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Political buzz from Washington

Issue: "Mourning has broken," Sept. 29, 2001

Fifty ambassadors from around the world, and over 150 other guests, were at the 16th Annual UN Prayer Breakfast on Sept. 11 as the two hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center. The breakfasters were in the dining room on the 4th floor of the United Nations building; cell phones began going off throughout the room, yet no one left until the event officially ended at 10 a.m. and UN officials evacuated the group. Everyone else was already out of the building. Meanwhile, in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in his private Pentagon dining room with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) when they received news of the first attack. Rumsfeld, according to Cox, quickly explained to his colleagues "why America needs to abandon its decade-old two-major-war strategy, and focus on the real threat facing us in the 21st century-terrorism, and the unexpected." Rumsfeld noted previous "shocks" and, just moments before news of that second attack came in, added, "I've been around the block a few times. There will be another event." Suddenly, news of the second attack in New York came in and security aides rushed the defense secretary down to the National Military Command Center located in the building's nuclear bomb-proof basement. Wolfowitz followed. Cox quickly headed back to the Hill. Minutes later, the Pentagon was hit. Almost four out of five Democrats and nine out of 10 Independents approve of President Bush's handling of the terrorist crisis, according to a Sept. 14-16 survey taken by pollster John Zogby. All told, 87 percent of Americans approve of the president's approach. Tangible results of such support: The Democrat-controlled Senate on Sept. 14 suddenly and unanimously approved John Negroponte, the president's embattled nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Brian Jones-president of the conservative Center for New Black Leadership, and nominated to be the general counsel of the Department of Education-had expected a difficult confirmation battle, but the Senate quickly confirmed him as well. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Dick Gephardt, House minority leader, sing "God Bless America" together with hundreds of their colleagues on the steps of the Capitol, it's enough to make veteran political reporters like NBC's Tim Russert say things like, "Wild!" So what does the new, bipartisan "war on terrorism" mean for the two major political parties? While the nation has rallied behind the GOP president, Americans are in no mood for bruising policy and political battles right now, so some Republicans worry their gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey are in deep trouble. Public polls show both Mark Earley of Virginia and Bret Schundler of New Jersey behind by double digits, and both of their Democratic opponents have essentially suspended campaigning for the time being. What about next year's congressional elections? National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis says, "I don't have a job right now." The NRCC head, who serves as a congressman from Virginia, has temporarily suspended all fundraising calls at the NRCC. He said, "This is a time when you put partisanship aside, and I think we need to set the example at the party committees." Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman Patty Murray, a senator from Washington state, canceled the fundraiser she was headed to in New York on Sept. 11 and isn't sure when the party's aggressive fund-raising effort will resume. Her Republican counterpart, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist of Tennessee, agrees: "We know that it's more a time for prayer than it is for politics." Attorney General John Ashcroft is moving quickly to ask Congress for expanded power to impose wiretaps on suspected criminals and terrorists. But Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a former federal prosecutor and the lead sponsor of the recent congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force to wipe out terrorism, counsels caution: "Let us not rush into a vast expansion of government power in a misguided attempt to protect freedom. In doing so, we will inevitably erode the very freedoms we seek to protect." Barr notes that three years ago, without the benefit of any hearings or extended debate, the federal government's authority was greatly expanded to include so-called roving wiretaps. "Now ... we are on the threshold of granting the government authority to eavesdrop on any person, any time, at any location, and the question all Americans need to be asking is, when is enough, enough?"

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Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg

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