By Carlo Muñoz and Jeremy Herb - 09/11/12 11:03 PM EDT
From the White House to the Pentagon, Washington turned away briefly from the bruising political season on Tuesday to commemorate the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney took a break from campaign sparring to pay tribute to the thousands of Americans who died in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania on 9/11. Both camps pulled down their TV advertisements for the day, and neither held campaign rallies.
"With less than two months to go before Election Day, I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent’s plans for our military and for our national security," Romney said Tuesday during a speech at the National Guard Association convention.
"There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it," the GOP nominee said.
Speaking at the Pentagon, Obama told the families of the 9/11 victims gathered at the department's memorial that the deaths of their loved ones, while devastating, ultimately united the country.
“When the history books are written, the true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division. It will be a safer world, a stronger nation and a people more united than ever before," Obama said after observing a moment of silence at the White House at 8:46 a.m. — the moment the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
Romney said the images of 9/11 would forever be “seared in the memory of every American."
In the future, Americans will "marvel at the courage" of the passengers aboard United flight 93, who stormed the cockpit of the plane that would crash in a field in Shanksville, Pa., Romney said.
Vice President Biden, who traveled to the crash-site memorial in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, told family members there that an entire country continues to mourn their losses. “I also hope it continues to give you some solace knowing … that they've not forgotten.”
A spirit of unity was evident on Capitol Hill, where congressional leaders remembered those who perished in the 9/11 attacks and those who took up arms to avenge them.
“Everyone kept their place," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. "The professionals who did their duty, who ran in so that others could run out … The volunteers who raised their hands and said, 'I'll go,' and they'll fight overseas in perilous conditions.”
But the spirit of calm was soon broken at the Capitol as the two parties attacked one another over the fiscal cliff and the news that Moody's might downgrade the U.S. credit rating if a deficit-reduction deal isn't reached.
“With our nation inching closer to the ‘fiscal cliff,’ Speaker Boehner’s lack of determination to reach an agreement is due to his party’s intransigence and partisan obstructionism," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
Boehner, meanwhile, blamed President Obama and the Democrat-led Senate for the impasse on reducing the deficit. And Republican House leaders invoked the 9/11 anniversary to criticize the Obama administration on the looming defense cuts.
“The best thing that we can do ... to honor those individuals" who died during the 9/11 attacks is to ensure the drastic defense cuts under the Obama administration's sequestration plan do not go into effect, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.
Echoing that sentiment, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the best way for Congress to honor the lives that were lost is “to come together on sequestration.”
On the other side of the Potomac, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta noted that even over a decade later, Americans across the globe carry on the fight against those who seek to repeat the attacks of 11 years ago.
"They have fought and bled in places like Ramadi and Sadr City in Iraq," Panetta told hundreds of U.S. service members gathered at the Pentagon. "And they continue fighting to keep us safe in remote outposts across Afghanistan. Because of their sacrifices, we are a safer and stronger nation today."
During the same speech, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld told the crowd of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that "many of you are here today because of that day."
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Americans must never forget the incredible atrocities of 2001.
"Our shock over the enormity of the attack has long passed," McCain said in a statement released Tuesday. "But we have not lost, and we never will, our outrage at the inconceivable cruelty, the depravity, it took to plan, organize and execute" the 9/11 attacks.