Lawmakers divided on need for more security after shooting

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Security tightened Sunday on Capitol Hill as grief-stricken lawmakers, their spouses and staffers were briefed about their own personal safety in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

About 800 members of Congress, staff and spouses discussed security in a conference call with Capitol Police Chief Philip Morse, FBI officials and other top congressional security staff.

During the call, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he's asked security officials to "conduct an in-depth security review" for members of Congress when they meet Wednesday. A briefing will also be held for lawmakers' district office directors.

At the White House, President Barack Obama called on Americans to observe a moment of silence Monday at 11 a.m. He called it "a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart." The president plans to observe the moment with his staff on the White House South Lawn.

Obama has spoken with Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly and expressed his "deep concern and full support," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro.

The president postponed his previously scheduled Tuesday trip to a General Electric plant in Schenectady, N.Y., where he planned to talk about clean energy and job creation.

Giffords, a third-term Democratic congresswoman from southern Arizona, remained in critical condition at the University Medical Center in Tucson. The medical briefing for members of Congress included information that Giffords was shot through the left lobe of her brain, which governs speech as well as movement on the right side of the body. Physicians currently have her in a medically induced coma, from which they have periodically revived her and found her responsive, according to those briefed.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, D-Conn., said during the conference call that new members of Congress and spouses were especially concerned about security.

"We want to make sure that spouses know how to connect," he said. Officials talked about "coordination with local security and how we should go about that."

Morse discussed recommendations for members' security, but no details were released.

Congressional leaders are accompanied by plainclothes Capitol Police officers. Rank and file members typically don't get protection outside the Capitol, and there was no indication that policy will change.

The call followed a Saturday night memo from the House Sergeant at Arms, the institution's chief law enforcement officer who oversees the Capitol Police, to House staff.

"At this time, there is no indication that this incident is part of any larger threat against Congress or has a nexus to terrorism," the memo said. "We will continue to review our security posture and make adjustments as necessary."

The memo gave staff other advice, notably that, "It is essential that each district office establish communication with local law enforcement. The local agency should be informed of your district office address and the member's residential address.

"Most agencies will provide additional attention to those locations upon request."

The Senate was previously scheduled to be out of session this week. The House has postponed a Wednesday vote to repeal Obama's health care law, and no votes will be held this week. Instead Wednesday, the House plans a tribute to Giffords and others killed or wounded during Saturday's rampage.

"We are just taking some time," said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., a member of the House GOP leadership team.

Rodgers said that working to repeal the health care law "continues to be a high priority for the House Republicans and the new majority," and a House vote is expected soon.

Lawmakers made it clear that the Arizona shooting shouldn't affect the way they conduct constituent business. House members, who face election every two years, often pride themselves on frequent town meetings and informal events like the one Giffords was hosting Saturday outside a grocery store.

"We must, in a democracy, have access to our constituents," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

Still, the Arizona incident "needs to be a wake-up call for members who have treated their own personal security in a cavalier way," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who noted that she always has officers present when she holds town meetings.

"Not a cavalry of officers," she said, "but at least a show of law enforcement so that we can make sure my staff is protected." She and Cleaver spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a top Democrat, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said that rather than cut spending for congressional security, as had been discussed earlier, "We ought to look at whether or not we may need to beef up the funding . . . so that Congress people can work with their state and local law enforcement officers."

Not everyone seemed to agree.

Freshman Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, elected last fall with tea party backing, also said that no changes are needed.

"This is an isolated incident by a deranged person similar to other tragic shootings at post offices, schools, places of work," she said. "I don't believe extra security measures are warranted, nor that political rhetoric had anything to do with it."

Some ordinary voters agreed.

"I think it should stay the same," said Kathleen King of Aberdeen, Md., who Sunday was visiting the National Mall, in the Capitol's shadow. "I think it was just a fluke."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., noting that attacks on members of Congress are rare, suggested that the shooting was random and said of extra security, "I just don't see why it would be necessary.

"There are problems in schools, in workplaces. Lamentable tragedies happen," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We've got to keep going.

"I don't think this calls for stepped up security for us," she said, adding, "I don't even know that that's possible, there are so many of us."

What most needs to change, lawmakers said, was for them to set a more gentle tone.

"We are in a dark place in the country right now, and the atmospheric condition is toxic — and much of it originates here in Washington, D.C., and we export it around the country," Cleaver said.

(Margaret Talev, Erika Bolstad, David Goldstein, Lesley Clark, Rob Hotakainen, Barbara Barrett and Michael Doyle of contributed to this article.)

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