Republican lawmakers will lace up their cleats Wednesday morning for their first practice of the year at the baseball field in Alexandria, where a gunman wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others last June.
This year, authorities are taking no chances on security.
“We will have a robust presence at practices and at the game,” U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman Eva Malecki said in an email.
That’s a departure from previous years, where often the only security presence at the lawmakers’ early morning practices consisted of leadership members’ Capitol Police security details. If no party leaders showed up, that meant no armed protection for the rest of the team during practice.
From the Archives: Roll Call’s Coverage of GOP Baseball Practice in 2017
Had Scalise skipped practice on the morning of the shooting, most members who were there believe, more than a dozen lawmakers would have been under fire without anyone to shoot back.
“The field was basically a killing field,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky recalled after the shooting. “Had the Capitol Police not been there, [the gunman] would have walked around the field shooting everyone.”
There could have easily “been 25 deaths or more,” Texas Rep. Roger Williams, the GOP team’s coach, said at the time.
At practices in years past, media were allowed to roam the dugout, field and all surrounding areas. Alexandrians strolled by with their dogs on leashes. Joggers jogged.
This year, the team’s organizers are requesting that cameras and trucks be staged in place by 5:45 a.m. for a security sweep. Reporters will be huddled along the third base line.
In previous years’ practices, there were no media sweeps. Most mornings, the only media presence — if there even was one — was a lone Roll Call reporter.
“I think it totally was a wake-up call,” Williams said Tuesday. “If you have that many congresspeople, you need security.”
The beefed-up security at the first practice Wednesday won’t be a one-off procedure, Williams indicated. He said he was confident the Capitol Police would protect members throughout the spring as they practice three times a week until the annual game scheduled for June 14 at Nationals Park.
“We need to be as important to them on the last day as we are the first day,” Williams said.
Last June, lawmakers took immediate steps to address pre-existing security concerns that the shooting exacerbated. Many members of Congress had said for months before the shooting that they felt threatened by protesters at events in their districts. Some avoided in-person town halls altogether.
Less than two weeks after the baseball shooting, the House Administration Committee increased the Members’ Representational Allowances fund by $25,000 per member for a roughly three-month period until the end of fiscal 2017. The extra money was intended for lawmakers to use on security for their homes and at events in their districts.
Lawmakers increased the House’s operations budget — which includes the MRA fund that covers district security — by $11 million in the legislative branch appropriations bill signed in March.
The Appropriations Committee does not provide a breakdown of which programs saw increased budgets because doing so could compromise “sensitive security information,” a spokeswoman for the committee said.
But she did provide a summary that indicated the funding increases will be used partly to “enhance security for members when they are away from the Capitol complex” — including at congressional baseball and softball team practices.
Lawmakers also increased the Capitol Police’s operating budget to $426.5 million for fiscal year 2018 — a $33.2 million hike from the previous year. The new USCP budget includes $7.5 million for the department to enhance its Threat Assessment unit and invest in new technology to protect members.
Members have expressed frustration that they’ve had to go to such lengths to protect themselves from harm, but agree that the budget increases were necessary to combat the realities of the modern political landscape.
“It is unfortunate that the current political climate in America has created the need for enhanced security,” GOP Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia said. “As someone who was on the baseball field that day and shot at several times, I completely understand the need for security at events where members of Congress congregate.”
“Had it not been for the Capitol Police at that practice last year, it would certainly have been much worse,” Loudermilk said.
The GOP team, managed by Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, will hold a news conference after practice Wednesday.
Alex Gangitano contributed to this report.