A Resolve to Keep Congress Open
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page A18 Their magnificent house violated in the most grotesque manner, the nation's lawmakers reflected somberly yesterday on the moment Friday when time seemed to stand still, and how vulnerable and exposed to danger they felt in spite of all of the trappings of power and the best security that money can buy.
Some had been in their offices when a gunman shot his way through a security checkpoint and killed two Capitol Police officers and wounded a tourist. Others had already arrived in their home districts for the weekend or were on their way there. Some had just pulled up to their Washington area homes after a routine day at the end of a busy week.
An eerie aspect of the tragedy was that the House had continued in session for nearly an hour after the shootout, as seven members apparently oblivious to the carnage one floor below gave speeches following the final vote of the day. Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) gave a tribute to Ole Miss Concert Singers, Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) discussed the "fast track" trade legislation, and Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) gave a 32-minute speech on independence for Puerto Rico.
According to Jerry L. Gallegos, superintendent of the House Press Gallery, the parliamentarian deliberately did not notify the presiding officer and the members on the floor, feeling they were secure as long as they stayed within the chamber.
"It was very strange," Gallegos said. "Inside the chamber it was very peaceful and serene a typical Friday wrap-up. Just outside the door, security guards and the police were running around and it was pandemonium."
But no matter where they were, there were common threads to the emotions the members of Congress recalled feeling in the moments after they heard of the attack: shock, anger, sadness, resignation to the inevitability of such an act in an age of seemingly random violence. For many, there was also a sense of relief for not having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) had a split second to make the decision Friday: Should she rush to catch a 4:05 p.m. flight home to Louisville or stick around the Capitol for a news conference marking the passage of health-care legislation and a celebration in the office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.)?
The freshman Republican chose to go home; only when she landed in Pittsburgh for a connecting flight did she learn that 10 minutes after she left the Capitol there had been a gun battle that left pools of blood in DeLay's outer office.
"I couldn't believe what happened," Northup said yesterday. "I've been in and out of DeLay's office a zillion times working on campaign finance and the drug task force. ... It's always the case that you can't help but wonder what would have happened if I had stayed."
"You can't be unaware of the security issue ... and yet I wouldn't change anything," Northup said. "All of us value the ability to be out there in the real world all the time. There are definitely people that become very upset over public policy unstable people who feel they have to personally take action. You're not sort of unaware that if somebody actually wanted to do something, that you would be in danger. But it's in such far reaches of your mind that you don't think about it."
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) learned of the incident while changing planes in Chicago. Stunned, Obey said his first thought was of standing on the House floor in 1983, when an Israeli stood up and attempted to blow himself up in the public gallery with a homemade bomb tied around his waist.
"If it had fired it would have knocked away most of the people in that part of the chamber," Obey said. "Every member has had threats on their lives. I've had dozens of them through the years."
"But I think we have to remain open," Obey added. "There may be protective techniques that could make it safer, but I don't want for the Capitol to become a fortress. God knows the White House is close to that."
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was on his way home to Virginia when he heard a report on the radio. As soon as he got home, a neighbor came up to greet him, saying, "This answers my first question; you're safe." Inside, the phone was ringing from his office.
"I was shocked, but this is something you know can happen. You also know you're lucky it hasn't happened before."
For Cochran, there was an eerie coincidence in the location of the shooting. Until a few years ago, he had an office just off the entry area on the Senate side and had two staffers seated just inside the door. "If he [the gunman] had turned right instead of left, he would have been right there."
"I don't worry about it, but it's something you can't escape. You're very visible and vulnerable," Cochran said. But he said he cringes at the thought of Congress becoming like some parliament buildings, such as the Israeli Knesset, where visitors are walled off from lawmakers by Plexiglas partitions. "It's important that we remain conscious of the dangers but not overreact," Cochran said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) had just gotten off a plane in St. Louis, where he saw the unfolding story on airport television screens. "I was horrified to think this could happen" to the police officers and people who come to visit the Capitol ... "I think I felt for a moment like the parents felt after a school shooting. You feel differently the next time you go into a place you love."
Outside of Washington people were stunned and personally affected, Durbin said. "A lot of us who work in the building forget about what it means to the country. When someone defiles it, it really hits hard."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) was en route to the airport to catch a shuttle to New York when he got the news. "I was shocked, but not totally surprised," Livingston said. "It's part of our society. If school children can shoot one another on the playground, it's not surprising some nut would walk into the Capitol."
"These things are going to happen," he added. "We're the people's body. We remain exposed as public officials. It's something you learn to live with."
Several members said they had been within minutes of being caught in the middle of the shootout.
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) spent much of Friday afternoon on a delivery route, shuttling between GOP leadership offices as he dropped off bottles of champagne to thank staffers and members for their work over the year. After visiting the offices of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), Foley entered DeLay's office suite, only to leave a few minutes before the shooting broke out.
"I forgot to give one person a bottle, and wanted to go back," Foley recalled. But his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, encouraged him to return to the Cannon House Office Building. "Kirk said, 'No, you really need to get back to the office to make some calls.' "
As soon as Foley entered his office, he learned of the gun battle.
"You think, 'that's a door I go into all the time,' " Foley said, adding that he and his staff relied on TV news accounts for their sole source of information. "We didn't know who was hurt. For a good 40 to 45 minutes, you were almost in suspended animation."
Several members had brought their children to the Capitol to watch the proceedings before Congress recessed for the weekend.
"It's especially poignant for me because I had two of my children with me, 5-year-old Patrick, and 4-year-old Matthew," recalled Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.). "We exited out the steps about 10 minutes before and a hundred yards from where the shootings took place."
Roemer said he would not hesitate to bring his children to the Capitol in the future. "I still feel very secure in bringing my children up there," he said. "There's a very difficult balance between security that restricts democracy and puts up castles and fortresses, and sunshine that allows democracy to flourish."
Even the most banal congressional rituals took on an added significance in light of the attack. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was on his way to catch a plane to New York, but stopped to pose with tourists on the East Front lawn from where the gunman entered.
"I was at that door 20 minutes before [the shooting]," Gephardt said, noting that his office is directly above DeLay's. "I walk up and down those stairs 10 times a day.
For Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Friday was "the most routine of days, with a morning vote and people scrambling to leave. It was the end to a busy week, and things were kind of laid back."
Coats had spent a couple of hours working on the D.C. appropriations bill and left Capitol Hill for home about an hour before the shooting. Tuning in to a Chicago television station on cable to catch the Cubs score, he saw a broadcast coming from the Capitol.
"The news came as a shock but not a total surprise," he said. "We all know how vulnerable we are, but unless you build a wall around Capitol Hill and turn it into an armed fortress, you're never going to make it totally secure. ... You have to live with it or you'd be paranoid all the time."
Coats said his memory was drawn back to the time when he arrived on Capitol Hill 18 years ago. "Anyone could park on Capitol Square if they got there early enough, there were no [magnetometers], nothing like that. Now it's become a highly armed and secure environment where people are holding their breath for when violence may occur."
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