Congress convenes in New York to honor Sept. 11 victims, heroes

NEW YORK -- Congress paid homage Friday to the victims and heroes of last Sept. 11, convening blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once loomed and pledging the nation's determination to vanquish terrorism.

Meeting outside Washington for only the second time since moving there in 1800, more than 300 lawmakers held a solemn 50-minute session that was a collage of speeches, poetry and music. At its end, many linked hands as they sang "God Bless America" along with a local high school choir.

"The sorrow has been matched by strength," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "America is on a mission, not retribution or revenge, not just to defeat terrorism, but to show once again that good can triumph over evil and freedom can overcome fanaticism."

"The duration of our present conflict and its price may be in doubt, but there can be no doubt as to its outcome," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "From this city's day of horror and all of the loss and sorrow has come strength."

Visited WTC site

Lawmakers followed the meeting with a visit to ground zero, where a wreath of white carnations and lillies was laid for the 2,800 who died when terrorists rammed two hijacked planes into the twin towers. As a flute played softly, legislators filed past and placed small American flags into baskets beside the flowers.

Friday's congressional session, which was strictly ceremonial, was held in Federal Hall. The 160-year-old marble and sandstone building stands where the first Congress met in 1789 and 1790, when New York briefly reigned as the nation's capital.

It was there that George Washington took the oath to become the nation's first president. It is also where legislators approved the Bill of Rights and laws creating the federal courts and the State, Treasury and War departments.

"The members of the first Congress shaped events long into the future. The same is now asked of us," said Vice President Dick Cheney, who as Senate president presided over Friday's meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Friday's speakers stood atop a slab of sandstone from the balcony where Washington stood when he took his oath of office.

Forty-eight senators and about 270 House members were in attendance, with many forced to sit behind the marble columns that ring the hall's rotunda. That is more than half of Congress' membership, and far more than generally attend working sessions at the Capitol.

Officers toting assault weapons guarded the members of Congress as they boarded two special trains in Washington early in the morning. As they journey north, lawmakers said they noticed helicopters overhead and police cars at bridges. Federal Hall, which is on Wall Street and in one of the city's most bustling business districts, was ringed by scores of armed officers.

Of two minds

Outside, people seemed of two minds.

"Congress is showing good faith in being here and keeping the memories alive" of the victims, said Chipper Bagwell, 52, a basketball coach visiting from Greenwood, S.C.

But financial analyst David Mohabir, 31, of New York, took note of the upcoming Nov. 5 elections for control of Congress and said, "It might be politically motivated in some ways."

During the meeting, the nation's poet laureate, Billy Collins, read "The Names," a poem he wrote for the occasion describing the pain caused by the sheer number of victims.

"So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart," he wrote.

Friday's session was among several events -- including a planned visit Tuesday by President Bush -- scheduled as the first anniversary of the attacks nears.

At a lunch also attended by victims' survivors, Daschle and Hastert presented New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a flag that flew over the Capitol on Sept. 11.

The private Annenberg Foundation provided a $1 million grant to help cover the costs of Friday's congressional visit. It is unclear if that will be enough, or who will pay if the price tag is higher.

The only other time since 1800 that Congress has met outside Washington was in 1987, when it held a ceremonial meeting in Philadelphia for the 200th anniversary of the Great Compromise, which created the House and Senate.