Congress grapples with public fallout on $71 million visitors center plan


WASHINGTON -- At one point, it sounded like a good idea -- an underground visitors center designed to make the Capitol more hospitable to the hordes of tourists tramping through each year.

But its price tag -- $71 million -- is causing indigestion among many lawmakers, wary of triggering a new wave of public fury targeted at Congress and its supposedly high-living ways.

"I don't hear any of my constituents demanding a new visitors center," said Representative Dan Glickman, D-Kan., author of a Nov. 1 letter signed by 49 of his colleagues opposing the new facility. "What they say is they want more bathrooms."

The contemplated center would give them that and much more. As laid out in drawings that themselves cost $180,000, the architect of the Capitol proposes a three-story center buried under the East Plaza that would include theaters, cafeterias, security facilities, exhibition space -- and about 169,500 square feet of office space, about one-third of the project's total area.

Until last month, the plan encountered no opposition, floating quietly through the legislative process and several committees of the House and Senate. Then, the District of Columbia's non-voting delegate to Congress, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, demanded the completion of an environmental impact statement documenting the center's potential impact on Capitol Hill's already congested traffic patterns.

With a local spotlight thrown on the architect's plans, some lawmakers became edgy about the timing -- coming just weeks after a series of embarrassing mini-scandals over unpaid tabs at the House restaurant and bounced checks at the House bank.

"Given [the] mood prevailing across the country, why are we about to begin building a $71 million visitor center here when most people can't afford to visit Washington?" Mr. Glickman asked in his missive.

The letter appears to have helped put the plans on hold for now. At a private meeting among lawmakers last week, Representative Charlie Rose, D-N.C., the chairman of the House Administration Committee, said his panel would not approve the $3 million needed for new security arrangements, thus postponing plans for later consideration.

Not to be outdone, House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., entered the room and pledged to force an up-or-down vote on the whole matter next year. Such a vote, he said, would kill the facility. "Why do we need to spend $71 million for a basement entrance to the Capitol?" he asked.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., continues to profess his support for some kind of addition -- perhaps one less grandiose than that contemplated by the Capitol architect.

"I don't think it's written in stone, but some form of accommodation for the visitors. I think we ought to go forward with it."

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