Many Lawmakers Wary Of More Security Restrictions

January 10, 2011

David Welna

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in Tucson has renewed concern for the security of every member of Congress.

Still, elected officials insist they will keep holding public meetings with constituents, and many are wary of any new restrictions being imposed for their safety.

On Capitol Hill, Monday began with Capitol police rushing to close off an area because of the appearance of a suspicious package. It turned out to be nothing, as is usually the case.

But it was a reminder of the daunting task of trying to protect Congress. In 1998, two policemen were shot dead in the Capitol. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, envelopes filled with deadly anthrax spores showed up at senators' offices.

Congress was not in session Monday, but at 11 a.m., hundreds of staffers and a few lawmakers gathered on the Capitol steps for a moment of silence. It ended with a prayer by a preacher, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO): "Bless these, God, your servants who serve this nation. Keep them safe."

One of those servants was Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who said everyone was struck by what he called "this awful event Saturday." But he did not want the shooting of Giffords to result in new security restrictions for such public events.

"Most of us would balk at additional security things, knowing that that would -- that's not who we are," he said. "I mean, we come from the communities that we represent; we're the same people that we were before."

Increase In Threats

But lawmakers do get threats, and many are real. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer says they have been increasing.

"On the Senate side, we average about five a week. Last year, I think we had 49 very credible threats; the year before that it was 29," he said. "But we've worked with the locals, and especially the FBI, the U.S. attorney and the local prosecutors. Some of those have been prosecuted. Most of those actually have been referred to mental care facilities, and that's generally the gist of the type of thing we see."

Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat, says she received a very real threat last year.

"It was a phone call, and he said he's going to come and kill us and he had guns and he was going do it, so we took that seriously," she said. "The police took that very seriously, and he did have a gun and he did acknowledge making that threat."

"My Job Is To Be Accessible'

Still, many members of Congress say they simply can't scrap the meetings they have planned in their home states because of what happened in Tucson.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia was holding two meetings Monday with his constituents.

"My job is to be accessible to the folks who hired me, in a way that allows them to express their views," he said.

Speaking from his district in Minnesota, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz said he has asked local police to be on hand when he's held large events with his constituents.

"But I've got to tell you, if I'm doing a store appearance -- which I've done dozens of them, just like Gabrielle did on Saturday -- having a police officer stand right next to me ... I think that can have a chilling effect on the positive rhetoric that has to happen," he said.

But some lawmakers say overheated rhetoric is itself a security threat.

"That kind of angry rhetoric can lead to angry words, and it can lead to angry acts. It can lead to acts of violence," said Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat.

And now it's leading to calls to lower the tone on Capitol Hill. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.