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CVC Opens to First Wave of Senate Staff

Senate staffers have quietly begun using the Capitol Visitor Center, creeping into the space during recess without much of the Hill knowing it.

In early August, the Architect of the Capitol’s fire marshal gave staffers the green light to move offices into the space set aside for expansion of the Senate, CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said. All that’s left to do in that area is move in some furniture and do a few touch-ups.

“People are already moving down there and already working down there in the Senate expansion space,” Fontana said. “It’s a major milestone for us.”

At least one Senate committee will use a CVC room for a closed hearing today, and the Senate Recording Studio is almost up and running in its new CVC space.

The move-in perhaps marks the end of years of jokes about the CVC, a project notorious for being over budget and behind schedule. Priced at about $150 million in 1998, its price tag ballooned to $621 million as Members added security features and extra space.

But during the past year, construction got back on schedule.

By August 2007, 97 percent of construction was complete, leaving fire- and life-safety tests as the only major hurdle before the CVC’s completion. And the next month, officials from the Government Accountability Office and the AOC finally reached agreement on when the project would be completed: November 2008 — an estimate that still stands today.

Now the CVC is set to open to the public on Dec. 2. Nothing was spared in its creation. Its footprint is bigger than the Capitol itself, and includes dining areas, committee rooms and even extra House and Senate floors.

But one problem still stands: CVC officials have not figured out how to get visitors to the door.

Right now, tour buses can’t pull up that close to the Capitol because of security concerns, and money hasn’t been appropriated for any other transportation plan.

So far, ideas range from dropping visitors off at the opposite end of the Capitol to providing a trolley from a bus drop-off point.

Members have expressed frustration at the plans — some calling them “patchwork” and unrealistic.

On July 21, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse handed in a report outlining some possibilities for pre-screening buses, but three months before the opening date, nothing has been determined.

Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), wrote in an e-mail that the subcommittee “is reviewing the information to develop a plan that eases access while maintaining a high level of safety for visitors and staff.”

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