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As lawmakers gathered in the House Wednesday to reflect on the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, grief was beginning to give way to frustration over a lack of security not only for themselves but also for their staffs.
Party leaders gathered in the morning in the House chamber to begin an emotional daylong tribute to the Arizona Democrat and the other victims.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) set the tone, giving an emotional speech praising Giffords and Gabe Zimmerman, her outreach director who was killed in the attacks, and he called for the nation to come together.
But the somber floor speeches were a contrast to some of the anger and fear expressed in closed-door security briefings for Members, after which some began reverting to their partisan ways.
During the meetings with Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and FBI representatives, some lawmakers expressed concerns that the Capitol Police did not adequately investigate threats against them.
“There are other Members of Congress who are now speaking, suggesting incidents that have happened to them that have not been thoroughly investigated,” Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) told reporters after the meeting.
Several Members expressed concerns about how to better secure district staffers and whether they could spend their Members’ Representational Allowance on doing so.
“Some Members inquired about being able to use Members’ reimbursable allowance to maybe hire an off-duty policeman to be at an event, if that’s an appropriate use of funds,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said. “The answer was ‘Yes.’”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield said he will spend some of his allowance on tighter security in his district office.
“I’m going to make sure we have a bulletproof entrance, and we’ll probably do some other things, simple things, like putting the chief of police on speed dial,” the North Carolina Democrat said.
But Jackson said the currently appropriated funds aren’t enough and in the meeting intensified his call to roll back the 5 percent House budget cuts and increase MRAs by $150,000 per Member — a call he said Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) ensured him he will take seriously.
Jackson was incensed that Congressional districts remain unsafe, even after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Washington, D.C.’s monuments, the White House and national parks across the country were secured and the Capitol was turned into what the Illinois Democrat called a “fortress.”
“We bunkered down around the Capitol and made it impossible to drive round this complex,” he said. “We’ve done all of that. We simply did not feel it politically possible to do it for our district staffs. And as a result of that, today they are vulnerable. Members in their districts are vulnerable. Our government at the district level is vulnerable and something needs to be done about it.”
Others Members agreed that law enforcement should be more vigilant and responsive.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she has a “personal beef” that the FBI director in her district doesn’t engage enough with her and the community, and she called for more coordination.
Speaking to reporters after a briefing to almost 200 Senate staffers in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Morse said he encourages Members to contact him with any of their doubts.
“The important thing to me right now is not any criticism about that but actually finding out whether there is a threat or any interest in getting it resolved,” Morse said.
Morse, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer and FBI representatives told the staffers how to identify threats and minimize risks at district events, while another 360 offices streamed the meeting online, Gainer said.
He went through a packet called “Active Shooter, How to Respond,” and he advised staff gathered inside the briefing room that if they are presented with a situation where they are threatened by someone with a gun and are unable to escape or evade the situation, they should “attack.”
“Don’t sit around and wait to be shot,” Gainer said. “Attack. Attack loudly. And hopefully some good will come out of it to someone.”
Meanwhile, there were some flares of partisanship during the otherwise solemn day.
For instance, following the GOP’s security briefing, Rep. Louie Gohmert accused the FBI of purposefully withholding information from lawmakers about suspect Jared Loughner to hide ideological links to the Obama administration.
“It may be if the things he was reading, that he’s a liberal, hates the flag, supports Marx, if those type of things turn out to be true, then it may be embarrassing to the current administration’s constituents, and heaven help us we wouldn’t want to embarrass the president’s constituents,” the Texas Republican said.
Gohmert’s remarks stood apart from the messages from leaders on both sides of the aisle urging that vitriol be put aside.
“This body has yet to fully register the magnitude of this tragedy,” a teary-eyed Boehner said, with several dozen of his colleagues looking on. “We feel a litany of unwanted emotions no resolution could possibly capture. We know that we gather here without distinction of party.”
He added: “The needs of this institution have always risen above partisanship. And what this institution needs right now is strength — holy, uplifting strength.”
Following his speech, a clearly shaken Boehner sat alone in the back of the chamber as other leaders took their turns paying tribute.
While most sought to avoid difficult questions of whether Loughner was motivated by the current poisonous political climate, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) bluntly warned his colleagues that they should pause and reflect on what effect their words have on people like him.
“It is a time for us to reflect on the heightened anger being projected in our public debate and the daily denigration of those with whom we disagree,” he said. “And it is appropriate that the wrenching, shocking, senseless violence of that day compel us all to reflect on our own responsibility to temper our words and respect those with whom we disagree, lest the failure to do so give incitement to the angriest and most unstable among us.”
Jessica Brady and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report