Reporters for daily newspapers were forced to vacate their workspace above the Senate chamber Tuesday, and two rooms adjacent to the floor were sealed off as officials tested the areas for asbestos contamination.
The Senate floor remained open for business as crews began a daylong evaluation of the rooms after having discovered asbestos in the chamber during the July Fourth weekend. The chamber was cleaned of the asbestos, allowing the Senate to continue its business uninterrupted, said Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The Republican and Democratic weekly strategy lunches, held in rooms located just steps from the Senate floor, were not affected by the closures.
“The lunches are going to go on,” Stevenson said. “The chamber remains open. It is just a question of conducting the tests both here [in the Daily Press Gallery] and in both cloakrooms.”
Reporters and staffers were instructed to leave behind any personal or business items, including computers, that were present in the gallery over the weekend.
“You can take whatever items that you may have brought in with you today,” Stevenson said. “But anything that was here over the weekend, please leave.”
Workers initially discovered “very low levels [of asbestos] in the chamber” as they did “replacement work on the intake vent,” Stevenson said.
Congressional officials scrambled to find workspace for the daily press corps that primarily covers the Senate. The Senate Periodical Press Gallery, which accommodates weekly publications, and the Radio-Television Correspondents Gallery, remained open. Some daily newspaper reporters took up residence in the Radio-Television Gallery and the House press galleries, which were also unaffected.
The closures were announced just hours after the Senate was gaveled into session following the Independence Day recess. Stevenson said officials expected test results to be available by the close of business Tuesday.