Hill Leaders Press for Visitors Center
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page A07
House and Senate Republican leaders agreed yesterday to move ahead with plans to construct a visitors center to help improve Capitol security as a result of the shooting Friday in which two U.S. Capitol Police officers were killed.
But they said details are still under review, including how closely -- if at all -- the center may resemble the 1995 plans for a $125 million underground complex on the east side of the Capitol that would include auditoriums, a cafeteria and exhibit areas as well as security checkpoints.
"The House and Senate have agreed to go forward with perimeter security and with a convenience and educational and security station for visitors," said House Oversight Committee Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Calif.), who, with Senate Rules Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), is spearheading the new security effort.
The visitors center would be part of a broader plan to improve security around the Capitol, including high-tech and more aesthetically attractive barricades (rather than the existing concrete flower pots) and improved scrutiny at entrances, said Warner.
But Warner said it will not include a wall or fence around the Capitol grounds, a thought that sends shudders down the spines of many lawmakers who want improved security at the Capitol but not at the expense of turning it into an armed fortress.
Neither Thomas nor Warner would estimate the cost of building and equipping the visitors center and went out of their way to say the visitors complex would not necessarily wind up resembling the 1995 plan. "It is absolutely premature to say it would look like that," Thomas said.
Many lawmakers have balked at dipping into taxpayer funds for anything like $125 million, and differences over funding have blocked action until last week's shootings revived interest in plans for a center that could help regulate the flow of visitors into the building.
Congressional leaders indicated yesterday that private as well as public funds will be sought for the improvements, although they did not say how much will come from each source. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he had heard considerable talk of a 50-50 split for public and private financing.
Earlier, many House members had been insisting on private financing for all or virtually all of the improvements.
Warner noted that $20 million was appropriated earlier this year as part of a supplemental spending bill for fiscal 1998 to improve security on the Capitol grounds and in congressional office buildings. Also, Warner won Senate approval Tuesday for an additional $14 million for unspecified security improvements -- which he later said could include a visitors center -- as part of a Treasury Department appropriations bill for fiscal 1999. But sources indicated that more funding is likely to be sought for next year.
The announcement of a go-ahead for the visitors center followed a meeting involving House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other key Republicans. "We want to try to take steps this year [to] get this started," Lott said. "The dynamic is to get it done. Our constituents deserve this."
Meanwhile, some additional security steps have already been taken. Additional officers are stationed a key entrances, and protection of House and Senate leaders appeared to have been beefed up. While the tourist traffic returned to normal after the memorial service in honor of the slain officers Tuesday in the Capitol Rotunda, a cascade of floral bouquets remained on the Capitol steps that extend from the Rotunda to the ground. The door used by the gunman was reopened for the first time yesterday, heavily guarded.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company