NEW YORK - Congress returned yesterday to its birthplace in Lower Manhattan to commemorate the lives lost on Sept. 11, salute the heroism displayed in New York that day and declare national strength one year after the horrific tragedy.
In a joint ceremonial session that was by turns sad and joyful, more than 300 lawmakers prayed, sang and listened to colleagues speak of the despair of Sept. 11 and the spirit of renewal that rose up in New York and around the nation in its aftermath.
"One year ago, this great center of liberty, enterprise and creativity suffered great cruelty and showed itself to be a place of kindness, generosity and grace," Vice President Dick Cheney said.
Dropping their party labels and legislative squabbles, the lawmakers convened in Federal Hall, where the first Congress met in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as president and the Bill of Rights was signed.
"For all our differences, how remarkably one we are all today," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat.
"While we discuss and debate the next decision, on the fundamental issue, let there be no doubt: In this great and faithful struggle, there are no Republicans, there are no Democrats, there are only Americans."
A barricaded and heavily secured Wall Street, festooned with American flags, welcomed the lawmakers - many of them adorned in matching commemorative scarves and ties to mark the occasion - to Federal Hall.
Their accessories were covered with stars and emblazoned with the words, "Stand with courage."
The session was one of only a few commemorative meetings that Congress has held in its history. And it was only the second time since it began meeting in Washington that Congress has convened elsewhere. (The first was in 1987, when lawmakers traveled to Philadelphia to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution.)
Those who attended yesterday weighed their words in the domed chamber with a keen awareness that they were making history.
"Let history record that the terrorists failed," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.
"They did not understand that the true strength of America is not steel, it is not concrete; it is our belief in the principles enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."
Lawmakers said the session evoked their own emotional memories of the events of a year ago, and the surge of determined patriotism that overtook Congress the moment the terrorists struck.
Many in Federal Hall wept quietly as the choir of Stuyvesant High School, located just a few blocks from Ground Zero, sang "God Bless America," just as 150 members of Congress did on the front steps of the Capitol as the sun set last Sept. 11.
Lawmakers joined hands to accompany the students in a last refrain of the song, raising their arms as they reached its rousing last words, "My home, sweet home."
"Once again, standing with my colleagues, singing that song evoked the emotion of that night," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who plans to attend ceremonies Sept. 11 at the Pentagon as a way to honor the 60 Marylanders who died in that attack.
"It showed Congress' solidarity with the people of New York and with everybody who has suffered as a result of the terrorist attacks."
Later, during a somber ceremony at Ground Zero, each lawmaker, one by one, placed a small American flag beside a memorial wreath in honor of the more than 2,800 people who died at the World Trade Center. A lone flute played quietly.
"It filled us with sorrow, but it was uplifting at the same time," Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, said of the day's events. "It reminded us of the greatness of the nation and how people can rise above and work together."
Members of Congress from New York used the ceremonial session as a chance to thank their colleagues for supporting the city after the attacks.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who had pressed for the commemorative session since just weeks after the terrorist strikes, thanked lawmakers for standing behind New York in the wake of Sept. 11.
"You didn't treat us like New Yorkers," Rangel said. "You treated us like Americans."
Over a lunch of sliced chateaubriand and berry tart at the Regent Hotel on Wall Street, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg welcomed Congress back to its first home and saluted the lawmakers for their support for rebuilding Lower Manhattan.
"New Yorkers recognize we would not have made it through the darkest days of our history without our nation's help," Bloomberg said. "We know that you were there for us when we needed you, and we will be there for you when you need us."
Members of Congress who spend their days in the Capitol, one of the most famous American landmarks, were themselves transformed into wide-eyed tourists at Federal Hall on this historic day.
Many of them whipped out cameras and posed near the stone where George Washington took the oath of office and the Bible upon which he swore.
Like high schoolers trading yearbooks on the last day of school, they passed around their gold-lettered commemorative programs for signatures from Bloomberg, Gov. George E. Pataki and their congressional colleagues.
"There are some days when I am truly in awe of this job, and this is one of those days," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican.
New Yorkers welcomed the congressional delegation with enthusiasm as giant tour buses carried the lawmakers from Penn Station - where they arrived yesterday morning on an Amtrak train chartered from Washington - to Wall Street.
Construction workers saluted the buses as they rolled by, while Wall Streeters pressed their noses to the glass in nearby skyscrapers, giving with their thumbs up.
"We wanted to come to New York to show our resilience and our unity, and to give them hope," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. "What has happened is that they've given that to us."
Indeed, though the day was rich in expressions of sympathy for the people of New York, lawmakers said that Congress had benefited, too.
"I think we needed this," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "I think we needed to be reminded that there are things much bigger than the daily battles we go through."