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Shock turned to mourning Monday on Capitol Hill as Members and staff tried to come to terms with the Arizona shooting tragedy that included the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Members and aides joined President Barack Obama in observing a moment of silence at 11 a.m. to honor the 20 victims, and hundreds filled the Cannon Caucus Room later in the afternoon for an interfaith prayer service. Many of them stood in line in the Cannon rotunda to sign books of well wishes and condolences. The mood all around was somber.
The House is expected to keep its regular business on hold this week, focusing instead on the shooting that occurred at a Giffords constituent event Saturday morning in Tucson. The chamber will be in pro forma session today; aides said they expect Members will use the time to pay tribute on the floor to the Arizona Democrat and the attack’s other victims. Giffords remains in intensive care after being shot in the head. The suspect, who is in custody and has been charged, is 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
Members are expected to consider a bipartisan resolution on Wednesday that Republican and Democratic leadership aides were working to draft Monday. The resolution is expected to pay tribute to the victims, offer condolences to the families, condemn the attack and commend the bravery of those who stopped Giffords’ shooter and tried to help the injured. Also Wednesday, Members are expected to participate in a bipartisan prayer service at 1 p.m. in the Capitol Visitor Center.
The House is expected to agree to the resolution by unanimous consent — rather than by recorded vote — and leaders in both parties are expected to jointly introduce it.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz said Monday’s moment of silence was especially important for staffers who “put themselves out there as well.” The tragedy claimed the life of Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, 30. Two other Giffords aides, Ron Barber and Pam Simon, were also seriously injured.
“It’s a time to be together, as anyone who has ever dealt with tragedy or grief or serious illness or death — it’s a time when reaching out to each other is very important,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said.
Schwartz added that a bipartisan conference call for Members and staff on Sunday was a helpful way to begin the healing and allow people to grieve.
“There certainly was a sense that this was one time that we are all in this together. We certainly feel deeply for Gabby as our colleague and friend. And many of us, across both sides of the aisle, we want to make sure that we are safe, and that our families can feel secure,” she said.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who also participated in Monday’s moment of silence, led the crowd in prayer afterward, asking God to “help us move from this dark place to a place of sunshine.”
The interfaith prayer service held later Monday brought many to tears. Gavi Begtrup, a Giffords policy adviser, spoke about Zimmerman and Giffords’ contributions as public servants. Staffers bowed their heads in prayer — at one point joining hands — as the names of those injured or killed were read.
But even as the Congressional community continues to struggle with what occurred over the weekend, Members and aides acknowledged that Congress will begin returning to normal in the coming days.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Monday he expected the House would resume its work after the Martin Luther King recess next week. “I don’t think that will change,” he said, adding that the tragedy would not stop Republicans from bringing up the health care repeal bill. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) immediately announced that GOP leaders would postpone a scheduled vote on the repeal that had been set for Wednesday.
“The leadership made the right decision to delay action as we mourn the loss of the people who lost their lives,” Upton said. “We’ll get back to business next week.”
Democrats agreed that Congress must get back to work in the near term.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said “Speaker Boehner has done it just right. You need a full week to reflect … [but] nobody expects the House of Representatives to take more time than a full week. They expect us to do the people’s business.”
Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) agreed, saying: “We depend on John Boehner as Speaker of the House and Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the minority to be able to determine the timeline, but I say that I would support it as soon as possible.”
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said that “further decisions on the legislative schedule will be announced at a later date, but this institution has an obligation to move forward in doing the business of the people at the appropriate time.”
Giffords, 40, remains at Tucson University Medical Center. Her doctors said Monday that they continue to be encouraged by her progress.
UMC chief neurosurgeon Michael Lemole told reporters there had been little change in the Arizona Democrat’s condition, but described it as a positive sign.
“At this phase in the game, no change is good. And we have no change,” he said.
But Lemole cautioned that it will take several days to know whether Giffords is out of the woods, and she is likely to remain in the hospital for several more weeks. Giffords was shot point blank in the head in what’s been described as a “through and through” wound, which includes an entry point and an exit point.
Members weren’t the only people paying tribute to the victims. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama led the nation in the moment of silence from the South Lawn. Obama also ordered that flags be flown at half-staff at the White House, on all public buildings and on all naval vessels throughout the country until sunset Friday. Flags have been flying at half-staff at the Capitol.
Meanwhile, Loughner’s family, who had been interviewed by federal investigators over the weekend, abruptly stopped cooperating with authorities Monday. They erected a plywood barricade outside of their Tucson house and refused to allow Federal Bureau of Investigation agents into the house.
Loughner has been charged with one count of attempting to kill a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee. He could face the death penalty if convicted.