WASHINGTON -- On the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices, President Bush asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked with toxins.
Critics said Thursday that they were surprised by Bush's request, which was included in his 2005 budget proposal. Its release coincided with the discovery of the poison ricin in the office of the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, on Monday.
"It is a stunning example of the budget choices this administration has made, where tax cuts for elites are more important than public health or adequate homeland security," said Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota and the Senator minority leader.
Daschle's office was the target of an anthrax-laced letter in October 2001 when he was the majority leader.
Chad Colton, a White House budget office spokesman, said each of the administration's budgets, including its 2005 proposal, has "invested substantial resources" into studying ways of preventing and responding to bioterrorism.
Buried in documents justifying the Environmental Protection Agency's budget plan is an acknowledgment that Bush's proposed research cut "represents the complete elimination of homeland security building decontamination research."
In the documents, the agency said losing the research money would "force it to disband the technical and engineering expertise that will be needed to address known and emerging biological and chemical threats in the future."
Two toxin attacks, first anthrax and now ricin, have caused serious disruptions in Congress.
This week the EPA joined the FBI and 100 Marines from the corps' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force to investigate, clean up, and collect the mail from all the congressional offices as a precaution.
So far, intensive testing of the office mailroom used by Frist, Republican of Tennessee, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building has not traced the deadly poison's origin.
In 2001, the EPA for the first time had to decontaminate a government building of anthrax bacteria. Anthrax-laced envelopes were mailed that fall to news media and government offices, including those of Daschle and Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
The cleanup of the nine-story Hart Senate Office Building cost more than $23 million.
Around the country, five people were killed and 17 sickened after coming into contact with letters containing anthrax.
The EPA also worked with postal officials and other specialists to decide how best to decontaminate the Brentwood postal facility in Washington and the Trenton postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J.