Congress Commemorates Sept. 11 Attacks

Several dozen members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Republicans and Democrats stood together in a rare moment of unity. But it was not quite the same as a similar event five years ago.

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And a few hours before the president spoke, several dozen members of the House and Senate gathered on the steps of the Capitol. Both Republicans and Democrats showed up for the event.

As NPR's David Welna reports, the gathering was aimed at reviving a rare moment of unity lawmakers experienced on the night of the 9/11 attacks.

DAVID WELNA: What congressional leaders sought to recreate last night was the 9/11 five years ago, when, for many, the world fell apart, but Congress came together. That was the day when Speaker of House Dennis Hastert, at the steps of the Capitol, set aside his Republican partisanship.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): Senators and House members, Democrats and Republicans will stand shoulder-to-shoulder to fight this evil that's been perpetrated on this nation.

WELNA: That 9/11 was also the day the leader of a Democratically-controlled Senate, Tom Daschle, took a time out from his own partisanship.

Senator TOM DASCHEL (Democrat, South Dakota; Former Majority Leader): We, Republican and Democrats, House and Senate, stand strongly united behind the president.

WELNA: And it was the day when lawmakers spontaneously broke out in bipartisan harmony.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) To the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home...

WELNA: Last night it was a far smaller crowd of lawmakers on the Capitol steps, supplemented by some Senate pages and aides. Speaker Hastert -whose House, as usual, did not meet on a Monday - reminded his colleagues of a death toll that's grown by thousands since 9/11.

Rep. HASTERT: And despite the pain of those old wounds and the new ones we sustain as our brave men and women fight back and sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places on the frontline of the global war on terrorism, we do not wish to forget.

WELNA: But Harry Reid, who leads what is now the Senate's Democratic minority, emphasized patriotic symbols rather than bloodshed.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): Five years and a day ago, men in suits rarely wore flag lapel pins. Today, five years after September 11th, from sea to sea, flags fly proudly in our front yards, on our suit lapels, and in our hearts.

WELNA: In fact, neither Reid nor any of the congressional leaders wore flags on their lapels, and only a few other lawmakers did. And this time, the United States Marine Band was on hand to lead a not so spontaneous rendition of the song sung five years ago.

MARINE CORPS BAND: (Singing) ...To the oceans white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home.

WELNA: Afterward, California House Republican David Dreier said he didn't think that there was anyone who had not been moved to tears.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): I think that the fact that we stood together on the steps of the Capitol today should play a role in helping us address these issues of NSA surveillance and the treatment of terrorists who are prisoners.

WELNA: And yet this is quite a divided Congress.

Rep. DREIER: You know, there's no secret that it's been very divided.

WELNA: Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, said there is good reason for that division.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): The support for the war against Afghanistan was unequivocal; everyone knew instinctively that the enemies that brought 9/11 to America had to pay a price. The war in Iraq took us in a different direction. It divided us, still divides us today.

WELNA: Despite their differences, Durbin and speaker Hastert - both from the state of Illinois - stood chatting amiably after last night's event, about football.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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