Leaders, Police Prepare

Posted June 7, 2004 at 7:05pm

The death of former President Ronald Reagan on Saturday has led House and Senate leaders to scrap their legislative schedules this week and left Congressional law enforcement officials to draw up security plans for handling an expected 100,000 visitors at the Capitol this week.

Reagan — the first commander-in-chief to lie in state at the Capitol in more than three decades — will be honored in Washington over a three-day period. During that time, the Capitol Police Department will increase its security measures to its highest levels — including the establishment of a new security checkpoint to funnel visitors into the Capitol.

“The security is going to be very similar to State of the Union or an inauguration event,” said Capitol Police spokesman Michael Lauer.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has designated all memorial processions and services for the former president, both here and in Reagan’s native California, as National Special Security Events.

During so-called NSSE events — which have recently included the 2004 State of the Union address — the Secret Service acts as the lead federal agency to “prevent terrorist attacks and criminal acts,” according to the Homeland Security Department.

The Secret Service will coordinate with local and federal law-enforcement, including the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Park Police and Capitol Police in those agencies’ jurisdictions.

A formal viewing of the casket will be held Wednesday in the Rotunda, with attendance limited to the Reagan family, Members of the House and Senate, heads of state, and other dignitaries. Public viewing of the former president’s casket will begin later that day, at 8:30 p.m. Funeral services will conclude Friday with a private service at the Washington National Cathedral.

To accommodate the widely anticipated crowds, the Capitol Police will operate a temporary screening facility near the Capitol’s southwestern drive. Visitors will likely be funneled from the facility into the West Front entrance along the same route used for public tours of the building.

“There is going to be one central site where everyone is checked and screened,” Lauer said.

Officers at the site will discourage visitors from bringing in flowers and other items into the Capitol — such as those left outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Police officials said that such items cannot be left in the building because of security concerns. Large purses or backpacks will also be barred, and cameras will not be permitted into the Capitol during the three-day viewing period.

In addition to heightening screening procedures, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer has canceled time off for officers this week in an attempt to harness the resources of his entire department. Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey made a similar decision Monday, stating that sworn officers would not receive time-off from Wednesday to Friday.

“We’re trying to boost our manpower,” Lauer said. No statistics were available Monday on how many overtime hours the department expects to accumulate.

In addition, public and staff-led tours of the Capitol will be suspended through Saturday.

Discussions about security procedures for the funeral continued late Monday afternoon, and additional changes are possible before Wednesday’s service, Lauer said.

Funeral Traditions

The commemoration for Reagan’s life marks the 10th time a former president has lain in state in the Capitol. There have been 17 other funeral services held in the Rotunda for non presidents, of which two were double ceremonies.

This is the first time a former president has lain in state in the Capitol since former President Lyndon B. Johnson died in January 1973, when nearly 40,000 visitors streamed through the Capitol, according to a contemporary report in Roll Call. Former President Richard Nixon declined the honor prior to his 1994 death.

While the U.S. Military District of Washington conducts the ceremonial arrangements for this week’s services — relying on traditions maintained by the military and the State Department — Reagan’s funeral will differ, in some ways significantly, from previous state funerals.

“It’s just not comparable in any way to previous ceremonies of this nature,” said Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie.

Notably, security will be significantly more stringent this time. “There will be more security for this one than there has been ever before,” Ritchie said.

In addition, U.S. Military District officials must also contend with construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which has rendered the East Front impassable.

Traditionally, funeral processions — including those of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy — have traveled across the East Plaza and up the Front Center Steps into the Rotunda.

However, when Reagan’s funeral procession arrives Wednesday — with a horse-drawn caisson traveling along Constitution Avenue from the White House to the Capitol — the U.S. Army Honor Guard will most likely transport Reagan’s casket from the Lower West Terrance up the Senate-side steps, then through the West Terrance Door and up the interior steps into the Rotunda.

The honor guard will remove the casket from the Rotunda on Friday morning by taking it down the Lower West Terrance via the House-side steps.

The Army conducted a series of drills of for a West Front procession in 2002 after construction began on the CVC, which is slated to open to the public in 2006.

Construction on the CVC will be suspended during this week’s funeral services. “Construction activities will cease, beginning 4 p.m. Wednesday and will not resume until 5 a.m. Saturday,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said.

One tradition which will be maintained is the use of the catafalque — a wooden framework made of rough pine boards and covered with black cloth — originally constructed to support Abraham Lincoln’s casket in 1865.

According to the Architect of the Capitol’s office, the simple structure has been used for all of those who have lain in state subsequently in the Rotunda.

The Rotunda was most recently utilized for funeral services after the deaths of Capitol Police officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, who were killed in the line of duty July 24, 1998.

Business of Congress Postponed

By the time Reagan’s funeral services began in California on Monday, lawmakers in both chambers had already cleared their schedules to mourn the former president’s death.

In the Senate, lawmakers gave unaminous consent to a resolution authorizing the use of the Rotunda for the funeral services, and also approved a resolution honoring the 40th president.

In the meantime, the chamber will delay consideration of the Defense authorization bill until next Tuesday. The Senate schedule had called for a vote today on a contentious amendment offered by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) regarding troop strength and Iraq.

The House similarly postponed all business originally scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Instead, House lawmakers will move today to pass a resolution allowing use of the Rotunda and a privileged “bereavement resolution.”

The House, which had planned to spend the week focusing on energy legislation, will also vote either Tuesday night or Wednesday on a resolution honoring Reagan’s life and service.

Ben Pershing and Paul Kane contributed to this report.