WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders arranged for an unprecedented shutdown of the House and possibly the Senate on Wednesday after more than two dozen people in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office tested positive for exposure to a highly potent form of anthrax.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said lawmakers would go home at days' end, and the buildings on one side of the Capitol complex submitted to a "methodical sweeping" to check for evidence of anthrax.
There was no immediate announcement from Senate leaders, as they grappled with the news that numerous aides to Daschle and two Capitol police officers had tested positive for exposure after being in the vicinity of an anthrax-laced letter opened in the senator's office.
Daschle spokesman Jay Carson said the tests "indicate exposure and not infection and there is a very clear distinction."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced plans to send lawmakers and staff home at day's end to permit health officials to conduct tests through the capitol complex, where more than 20,000 people work.
Five weeks after the worst terrorist strikes in history killed more than 5,000 in New York and Washington, the discovery only added to the nation's anxiety. Three government sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said preliminary testing indicated the anthrax found in Daschle's office had been refined enough so that it could be easily dispersed through the air. One said the anthrax was in a purified form that could be used as a weapon.
At a news conference in the Capitol basement, Hastert said a total of 29 people had tested positive for exposure in the Senate, including many aides to Daschle and two Capitol police officers.
He also said authorities had quarantined his fourth floor office in the Capitol, where his mail is processed and several of his aides have offices.
The tests were conducted after a letter sent to Daschle's office was found to contain a highly refined form of anthrax, suggesting it was produced by experts.
At a hearing before a Senate committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said more than 20 people had tested positive for exposure.
Asked about the particular strain in the Daschle letter, he said, "There's no question this is a very serious attempt at anthrax poisoning."
Scott Lillibridge, the HHS point person on bioterrorism, said, "There's been some attempt to collect it, perhaps refine it and perhaps make it more concentrated. That seems certain."
Elsewhere in the country, four people are known to have contracted anthrax and nine others have tested positive for the bacteria.
The FBI is investigating strong similarities in handwriting and style, including identical anti-American language, between the letter sent to Daschle in Washington and a letter with anthrax sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York.
Hundreds of people were tested Tuesday after the suspicious letter was opened in Daschle's office Monday. Nasal swabs were used on the staffers to see if there were any anthrax spores in their noses. A positive finding does not mean the person has the disease or will get the disease.
About 8,000 spores must be inhaled for a person to develop inhalation anthrax.
In an effort to jog the public's memory and gain new leads, the Justice Department released photocopies of the envelopes to Daschle and Brokaw, showing identical block letters and addresses written slanting to the right.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, appearing on morning TV shows, sought to reassure a nervous public but added: "There's no question that right now we are in a period of the unknown."
He told NBC's "Today" show: "We are prepared to respond and we have been able to respond." He said the government was working to strengthen local and state public health systems, and to stockpile more antibiotics.
"Bioterrorism has never hit America like it has in the last couple of weeks and what we're trying to do is we're trying to calm down the American public, tell them we can respond to a bioterrorism attack," he said on CBS' "The Early Show."
While hundreds of people who may have been exposed to anthrax took precautionary antibiotics, Daschle said the letter sent to his office contained "a very potent form of anthrax that clearly was produced by someone who knew what he or she was doing."
Three government sources, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said preliminary testing indicated the anthrax had been refined enough so that it could be easily dispersed through the air. One law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the anthrax was in a purified form that could be used as a weapon.
Additional testing was being done.
The photocopies of the Daschle and Brokaw envelopes showed both letters were postmarked from Trenton, N.J., and both appeared to have the same type postage.
The two letters contained similar anti-American and anti-Israeli language and a pro-Muslim statement, and both made references about recipients needing medicine, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Capitol Hill, security officials closed an entire wing of an eight-story Senate building as the testing for anthrax contamination continued.
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