D.C. area members of Congress to continue public events despite Arizona shootings

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 5:33 PM

Hours after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 19 others were shot outside a Safeway in Tucson, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) went to a supermarket in his Northern Virginia neighborhood Saturday night to do some shopping.

"A guy with an NRA [National Rifle Association] cap came up to me in the grocery store parking lot," Moran recalled Sunday. "He wanted to get into it."

Moran, an outspoken liberal and advocate of gun control, is accustomed to "getting into it" with conservatives and political opponents. And despite the tragedy that befell Giffords - whom Moran calls a friend - the pugnacious former college football player has no plans to change his usual approach to such situations: "I walk right up to them and I confront them."

Like Moran, other members of the Washington area congressional delegation said Sunday that the Arizona shootings will not change how they do their jobs or diminish their willingness to engage with their constituents in public.

"Congresswoman Giffords was doing exactly what members of congress should be doing all across this country," said Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) "I do coffee conversations and meetings also at our Safeways and Giants."

The attack on Giffords "does give you pause in considering how we do those events and how vigilant we are," Edwards said, but that doesn't mean she'll stop doing them.

Democratic leaders had encouraged House members to host "Congress on Your Corner" events - like Giffords's - to answer constituents' question about such things as Social Security and veterans' benefits and to get them help with specific problems.

"Nobody wants to be a walled-off fortress. Everybody's very determined to continue to be out and about with our constituents. That's a critical part of the job," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who helped create the events for House Democrats four years ago.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he had done just such an event at a Giant Food store in Dale City just before Election Day and will keep having them in the future.

When you've spent 17 years in public office, Connolly said, inevitably you will see attendees at events who appear to be mentally disturbed. "I've certainly met people who fit in those categories. . . . You just sort of move on," he said.

Threats, many said, are part of the job. When lawmakers get specific threats, they're instructed to notify the Capitol Police and local law enforcement. "We've done that on more than a couple occasions," Edwards said.

Van Hollen said that many lawmakers may want to use the Capitol Police to examine the security in district offices and suggest what they can do to stay safe. For instance, they could install silent arms that instantly alert local police when activated.

Van Hollen said "there will be a heightened, renewed sense" of threats from constituents, the sort of things that in the past might have been dismissed by lawmakers and staff.

Currently, only members of the congressional leadership and a handful of members who have been the subject of specific credible threats have full-time security details from the Capitol Police. (The department does not release the criteria it uses to determine whether a lawmaker warrants a detail.)

"I do think there will be some members who will ask for stepped-up security," Moran predicted. "I think to some extent it depends on someone's personality. . . . I'm not a risk-averse personality."

But given that there are 535 members of Congress and roughly 1,700 sworn Capitol Police officers, lawmakers and experts said it would be highly impractical for every member to get security in their districts.

Members of Congress are "perpetual-motion machines. They're everywhere, and it's virtually impossible to cover them all," said James Ziglar, a former Senate sergeant-at-arms and Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner.

"Most members, frankly, don't want to because it sends the wrong signal if it's obvious they have protections," Ziglar said. "You'd be surprised how many of them spurn that sort of thing."

During the height of the health-care debate last spring, Rep. Tom Perriello (D) drew attention to Virginia's 5th District after someone severed a natural gas line at the home of his brother. A Lynchburg Tea Party member had posted the brother's address online thinking it was the home of the lawmaker.

"Most Americans don't realize just how many serious threats were made the last two years," Perriello, who lost his reelection bid in November, said Sunday. "The response from law enforcement was phenomenal. We have to appreciate how much law enforcement does to keep members and their families safe."

Perriello did not stop his public events and urged other to be resolute as well.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) urged Congress not "rush" to implement any new security procedures without taking time to consider the implications.

"This is a huge tragedy but . . . there was already some frustration between the public and Congress.," Warner said. "To build a further wall between our representatives and the people who hire us would be a mistake."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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