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Asbestos Found in Senate

Testing Forces Staff, Reporters to Shuffle

The Senate Cloakrooms and Daily Press Gallery are expected to reopen Wednesday, after being shuttered a day earlier to test for asbestos.

After the hazardous material was discovered in the Senate chamber, senior floor staffers were forced to relocate their operations to other rooms adjacent to the chamber, while reporters for daily newspapers scrambled to find temporary workspace on a busy news day that included the selection of Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as the Democratic vice presidential nominee and the return of the Senate from its July Fourth recess.

The sealing off of the Cloakrooms and the media workspace located above the chamber did not interrupt Senate floor operations. Regularly scheduled political policy lunches, held steps from the Senate floor, were also not affected.

The Senate debated and then held a late-afternoon vote on the nomination of J. Leon Holmes, a controversial nominee to serve as a federal judge for the Eastern district of Arkansas. Holmes was approved by a 51-46 margin.

The Senate also debated legislation that would reform class-action lawsuits.

Workers initially discovered “very low levels” of asbestos in the Senate chamber as they carried out “replacement work on the intake vent,” said Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)

The chamber was cleaned of the asbestos over the weekend, making it safe to inhabit, Stevenson said.

But as a precaution, staffers and reporters 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.”

Chuck McCutcheon, a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service, said he understood the need to vacate the workspace but said he would have preferred if reporters had been “allowed more time for people to get their things out of there.”

“I know of one reporter who lost a lot of material,” added McCutcheon, a member of the Standing Committee of Correspondents. But McCutcheon did praise Stevenson for telling reporters about the closure in person.

Roughly 60 to 70 reporters are based in the Daily Press Gallery and another 200 correspondents utilize the gallery’s services each day, McCutcheon estimated.

The Senate Periodical Press Gallery, which accommodates weekly publications, and the Radio-Television Correspondents Gallery were not affected by the closures and remained open.

Some daily newspaper reporters took up residence in the Radio-Television Gallery and the House press galleries, which were also unaffected.

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