Speaker’s Lobby to reopen for the first time since the pandemic and insurrection

Seating arrangements unclear amid other big changes

Members of the National Guard are seen on Jan. 25 at the Speaker’s Lobby door where Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of the National Guard are seen on Jan. 25 at the Speaker’s Lobby door where Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 22, 2021 at 6:00am

A little more than five months after being the scene of a violent siege, hurried evacuation and shooting death, the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber will open to credentialed media Tuesday for the first time since COVID-19 protocols restricted access to just lawmakers and staff.

The Speaker’s Lobby is a long corridor featuring portraits of past speakers, crackling fireplaces, chandeliers and, typically, plenty of seating that lawmakers can use to read the newspaper, catch up on emails or gaggle with reporters.

On Tuesday evening, during the first House votes of the week, reporters will get their first access to the gilded space that turned into a bloody crime scene earlier this year.

The ornate, glassed-in vestibule came to national attention during the violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, when a Capitol Police officer shot and killed a pro-Trump insurrectionist attempting to climb through a broken window to enter the space. Video footage of Ashli Babbitt’s death was introduced as evidence at former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial earlier this year.

Babbitt, 35, was part of the mob that stormed the Capitol hoping to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College victory of Joe Biden.

When Babbitt tried to climb through the opening and into the Speaker’s Lobby, near the House floor where members were attempting to flee, a Capitol Police officer fired his pistol and hit Babbitt with one round. She was transported to Washington Hospital Center, where she died.

“Effective immediately, all persons, including members, are required to undergo security screening when entering the House chamber,” read a memo from the Office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms six days after the attack.

The Speaker’s Lobby now hosts magnetometers to scan lawmakers for weapons before they enter the House chamber. Journalists seeking quotes Tuesday will be required to pass through Capitol Police security screening when entering the lobby.

In February, the House adopted a rule fining members $5,000 if they failed to complete security screening at floor entrances, and $10,000 for subsequent violations. Rep. Andrew Clyde, the Georgia Republican fined $15,000 for skirting magnetometers on two occasions near the floor, is fighting the penalty in federal court.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week that despite the lawsuit, she has no plans to remove them.

“As long as there is a threat, we’ll have to have protection,” she said.

Members of the news media have been barred from the space since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only one reporter per media outlet will be allowed at a time inside the lobby on Tuesday.

Freshman lawmakers may have a rude awakening as the lobby that has provided a haven from reporters resumes its more regular rhythm and the gaggles return.

It’s not clear what the seating situation will be. In late 2020, the leather-seated benches and armchairs around the fireplaces of the Speaker’s Lobby were cleared out to keep lawmakers from lingering.

Reporters who were trapped in the chamber on Jan. 6 and heard the gunshot that killed Babbitt might also pause. They’ve only been able to see the scene from a distance from an adjacent hallway.

Portraits of former speakers who served in the Confederacy are removed from the Speaker’s Lobby by Architect of the Capitol workers in 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Pool file photo)

Another big change in the Speaker’s Lobby since the pandemic closure has been the removal of portraits of speakers who served in the Confederacy.

The four whose portraits came down are Robert Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, James Orr of South Carolina and Charles Crisp of Georgia. Hunter, Cobb and Orr all served as speaker before the Civil War and the secession of the Confederate States of America. Crisp served as speaker years after the war in the 1890s.

The paintings were hauled out on the eve of Juneteenth last year.

They are just the most recently removed from the place of honor in the Speaker’s Lobby. In 2015, Speaker Paul D. Ryan removed former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s portrait, a week after he pleaded guilty to a hush-money scheme.

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.