A faint echo of 9/11, then more politics

WASHINGTON — The morning after the Boston Marathon bombings, Ben Cardin, the first speaker on the Senate floor after leaders opened the day’s session, marked the national crisis with some heartfelt thoughts on … school libraries.

“Across the United States, students with good school libraries learn better and score higher on standardized tests,” the Maryland Democrat declared, standing next to an easel displaying an artist’s rendering of one such facility.

In the Boston bombings, Washington heard an echo of 9/11, but it was faint. The capital paused, then quickly returned to business as usual.

Senators declared their solidarity with the people of Boston — and then resumed their debate on gun control. House leaders prayed for healing — and then held a debate on information technology. President Obama delivered an update on what (little) was known — and then hosted NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski on the South Lawn. Committees met to talk about the budget. Lawmakers spouted about global warming, Martin Luther King Jr., prescription drugs and National Osteopathic Medicine Week.

This muted response to Boston could help explain Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s curious criticism of Americans’ readiness. “I think it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to September 11th has returned,” he said on the Senate floor. But there is also a benign explanation for why officialdom took the marathon bombings in stride: After years of color-coded panics, leaders have acquired a sense of proportion, and a disinclination to jump to conclusions.

Whatever the reason, some skipped the customary decent interval and plunged right into politics. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is preparing to run for the Senate, suggested that immigration reform should be put on hold because of the bombings. “Some of the speculation that has come out is that yes, it was a foreign national and, speculating here, that it was potentially a person on a student visa,” he told National Review Online.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, drew a link between Boston and the budget cuts known as sequestration. “We cannot take this anymore,” she said on the House floor, calling on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to take actions “to get rid of the sequester.” Others obliquely made a similar point.

But leaders on both sides generally found the proper tone of national unity. The top four House Republicans, in a carefully choreographed morning news conference, celebrated American resilience. Boehner refused to be goaded by a reporter asking if he was frustrated by the lack of leads. “The president and I had this conversation last evening,” the speaker said. “He’d like to know more. I’d like to know more. … Unfortunately, we don’t, but I am confident that we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

Obama added an appearance in the White House briefing room to his schedule; he had nothing to contribute to the store of knowledge, but he conveyed calm. “What we don’t yet know … is who carried out this attack or why, whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual,” he admitted. “But we will find out.”

Some lawmakers canceled events, including the rollout of bipartisan immigration legislation — ostensibly out of respect for the victims but just as likely because their announcements would get lost in the Boston coverage. But it didn’t take long for things to return to normal — or what passes for normal in the capital.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., spoke on the House floor about hospital deaths. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., spoke of the Iraq war. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., spoke of nuclear waste. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., spoke of dementia. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, spoke of the World War II Doolittle raiders. And Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., spoke of prisoners of war.

On the other side of the rotunda, the gun debate got increasingly nasty. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, an opponent of a bipartisan agreement on background checks for gun purchasers, taunted supporters: “They don’t have the votes for background checks, even though the vice president has reportedly stated that the opposition to the proposal comes on from, quote-unquote, ‘the black-helicopter crowd.’”

Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Grassley of offering “phantom legislation” and said Republicans made meaningless “happy talk” on the budget. “We have had the Republicans yelling, screaming, sometimes violently,” he reported.

Violently? It was a strange choice of words the day after a terrorist attack — and clear evidence that Washington was already moving on.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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