As one of their leaders remained in critical condition in a Washington hospital, congressional lawmakers suddenly, somberly confronted the need for more security, and fast – but found no easy answers and no easy ways to pay for it.
Around the Capitol, senators and House members were sympathetic to bolstering a Capitol Police force that has seen minimal budget increases in recent years, a police force that faced rough questioning last year when it sought more money.
That mood changed quickly Thursday, a day after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., two Capitol Police officers and two others were shot by an assailant on an Alexandria, Va., baseball field.
“I would support and I have suggested they need a bigger budget,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told a news conference Thursday. “In light of what has happened, it seems self-evident that when the teams are practicing there should be security there.”
New ideas were being floated.
“I signed up for this, but my 3-year-old didn't and our families didn't and I think that's the part we have to address,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La..
Capitol Police secure the complex that includes the Capitol building and surrounding office buildings and grounds.
Currently, the speaker, majority leader and whip and minority leader and whip get congressional protection. Police can also protect other lawmakers in certain circumstances, such as when they are threatened. And it is not uncommon for members of Congress to get local protection back home, where local law enforcement can coordinate with Capitol police..
In the Senate, those getting protection include the majority leader and whip, president pro tem and minority leader and whip.
Richmond is championing ideas that would make it easier for members to get their own security, perhaps out of their own office expense accounts, and said he has spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., about his ideas. Ryan’s office could not be reached for comment..
“I think the security of members of Congress is embarrassingly inadequate,” Richmond said.
The Capitol Police budget is scrutinized annually by House and Senate appropriations subcommittees overseeing the legislative branch, and ultimately has to be approved by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president.
Last year, police officials sought a 9 percent budget increase but faced resistance from committee members who didn’t see value in that large an increase. They were concerned because the proposed increase did not confirm to spending restrictions, and the police had unspent funds.
Congress ultimately approved a $393 million budget, short of the department’s $409 million request, though an increase over the fiscal 2016’s $375 million.
“While our mission has not changed, the scope of the threats that we face is changing,” former Chief of Police Kim Dine testified in March, 2016.
He cited more events that had not been anticipated, such as more such as demonstrations, holiday concerts and late night congressional sessions, as well as unforeseen critical emergency situations
Last month, new Chief of Police Matthew Verderosa testified in front of the same committee, requesting $426 million that would be used to recruit and train an addition 72 officers, 48 civilian workers and replace outdated screening equipment. The force now has about 1,770 officers.
House subcommittee chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, was sympathetic, to a point. “As the mission of the Capitol Police increases, so do the required resources to fulfill that mission,” he said.“However, our job is to scrutinize this requested increase and make informed funding decisions.”
Wednesday's shooting, though, appears to have changed the debate..
“This is one of the areas we’re going to have to look at,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., Senate subcommittee chairman. “It’s not just an increase in budget, but it’s a shift in how we do our security.”
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, had been skeptical the Capitol Police’s allocation of resources when deliberating the fiscal 2017 budget. His tone shifted Thursday when asked if a budget expansion was due in light of Wednesday’s shooting.
“We made a pretty significant increase in the last appropriation cycle, but I think we have to consider an additional increase," he said.
Contact: Katishi Maake @katishimaake