WASHINGTON -- The earlier-than-scheduled closing of the House of Representatives because of concerns about anthrax exposure put into limbo pending legislation on an economic stimulus package.
t last week's planned vote on a $100 billion economic stimulus package was put off and hasn't been rescheduled.
How the anthrax scare will affect the congressional agenda is unclear.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers already narrowed the scope of legislation to complete before adjourning for the year. Most bills on deck now address the terrorist situation, or the economy, like the pending stimulus package.
Although the House is poised to vote on economic stimulus and it's expected to pass, the bill won't be its final form.
The White House is questioning the size of the $100 billion bill and members of the Democrat-controlled Senate dispute some of the bill's corporate tax cuts and lack of stimulus to prod consumers to spend again.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, testifying last week before the congressional Joint Economic Committee and before anthrax fixed lawmakers' attention, gave no indication of when consumer spending might rebound.
"Nobody has the capacity to fathom fully how the effects of the tragedy of Sept. 11 will play out in the economy," said Greenspan, forecasting he'll have a better picture "in the weeks ahead."
However, Greenspan cited slight improvements in certain sectors, like automobile sales, since the "initial shock" of Sept. 11. But, he noted, "chain-store sales are sagging."
Observers said concern about anthrax was likely to deal a further blow to the nation's already sagging level of consumer confidence.
Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, said the anthrax cases are not causing people to panic. He said the scares "just deepen the uncertainties, but one death and 20 to 30 possible cases does not begin to match the impact of 5,000 bodies."
He said the combination of stories on the labor market and the setting in of the new reality is not going to be good for consumer confidence, but said he does not believe it will be "horrifically" bad.
Sung Won Sohn, chief economist with Wells Fargo & Co., said he believes consumer confidence, which was going up since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, might relapse in a decline.
"Consumers are beginning to realize none of us is really safe from the terrorist attacks," he said. "This is making us feel mad, not only because of the people it is directly affecting, but it is making us feel vulnerable.
"Not knowing the source of the anthrax is a problem. Once we identify the source and the rest of the culprits, we will feel better. What hurts is not the bad news, but the not knowing where the problem is coming from."