Some Hill leaders briefed on bunker government plan
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A small group of congressional leaders was called to the White House for a briefing Tuesday on the Bush administration's creation of a bunker government as a fail-safe measure in the event of a catastrophic terrorist event in Washington.
Congressional sources said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota; Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi; and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, met with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and President Bush's legislative liaison Nick Calio.
The meeting was intended to address a firestorm brewing between the White House and Congress over the administration's failure to inform key lawmakers about the existence of a contingency government.
Yet even as the meeting was underway, Rep. Richard Gephardt -- the top Democrat in the House of Representatives -- was home in Missouri, fuming that he had not been invited in the first place.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer disputed claims that Daschle, the other top Democrat on the Hill -- or at least his staff -- was not briefed prior to Tuesday's meeting.
"Senator Daschle was here at the White House earlier today where White House aides and others reiterated to the senator information that had previously been provided to people who work for him," Fleischer said.
"The administration has consulted with the Congress, has informed the Congress about its programs that have been in place, as you know, since the Cold War, to have continuity of government and continuity of operations," he said.
But Daschle told reporters that Fleischer was wrong, and that he had not been informed before Tuesday morning. "That was a misstatement and I hope it is corrected," said the Senate majority leader.
Lott said he was not informed in advance either but felt it was not necessary to alert him because he is not in the direct line of succession to the presidency.
"The key people, the people in line of succession were briefed or offered a briefing in whole or in part. Certain key staff people were made aware of it, and certain key committee members were made aware of it," said Lott.
But Sen. Robert Byrd, President Pro Tempore and fourth in line to be president, maintains through his spokesman he was never told about the standby government, learning of it through newspaper accounts.
Republicans dispute this, insisting Byrd was told.
On the question of who in Congress needs to know about contingency plans for government, Daschle disagreed with Lott, saying senior lawmakers must be kept in the loop.
"I believe that the leadership in the Senate needs to know what contingency plans there are in case of an emergency. I don't think that is too much to ask. I feel as a result of the briefing I was given today, I now know. I will leave it at that," said Daschle.
Daschle and Fleischer agreed on one point -- contingency government is a more accurate and appropriate term than "shadow government."
The majority leader toned down his complaint about the lack of congressional notification following Tuesday's White House meeting.
He told reporters meeting participants agreed there was too much public debate about an issue of national security where secrecy is essential.
In its effort to appease members of Congress who've complained about being kept "out of the loop," the White House may have ruffled more feathers.
A spokesman for Gephardt -- like Daschle a potential 2004 Democratic candidate for president -- said although the congressman was out of town he was never invited to the White House meeting.
Fleischer said the invitation was "a scheduling matter" and refused to elaborate.
One senior Democratic aide said Gephardt's office was "bewildered" by the snub. Asked if it could be explained because Gephardt is not in the line of presidential succession, the aide said "neither is Lott. And neither is Daschle for that matter. It's kind of hard to make that argument when it doesn't apply to two of the three people in the room."
Gephardt's spokesman said Gephardt has never been briefed about the administration's decision to put in place the bunker government of top-level employees in secure locations outside Washington.
"It's unfortunate because he would be interested to know about the White House thinking about the shadow government. What he's said consistently is for us to succeed we need to coordinate and collaborate. If the meeting was to talk about that, it's certainly something the house Democrats would like to be represented in."
There's a separate post-Sept. 11 contingency plan for the top leadership of Congress, but the details are veiled in just as much secrecy as the plan for the executive branch.
On Sunday, Daschle suggested it would be necessary to include the congressional and judicial branches in any contingency government.
He said after his briefing Tuesday morning he simply wants better coordination between the three branches on their plans.
--CNN Correspondent Kate Snow and Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report.
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