The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers worry the toxic atmosphere on Capitol Hill will follow them home, raising safety concerns

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks with reporters after a vote on Capitol Hill on May 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As House members head out of Washington for three weeks, anger at each other is turning into fear of what could await them back home.

Tensions among lawmakers have been running high since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob and have only increased in recent weeks. The two parties are clashing over how to investigate what transpired that day and whether, or how, to ease precautions put in place to keep members and staff safe during the pandemic.

The tenor of the debate has been highly personal, with Democrats expressing a sense of distrust toward their Republican colleagues with regard to their personal safety and health, while many GOP members are accusing Democrats of using the tragedies of the attack and the pandemic to score political points.

Now, several Democrats said they are concerned that the toxic political culture on Capitol Hill could greet them back home as their communities open up, with the pandemic waning and vaccination rates rising, and there is pressure to hold more in-person events.

“Obviously we’re going to return to more outward-facing live, in-person things and I’m thrilled about that. I want to do that,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). “I think we’re going to have to be very cautious. I think there’s going to have to be some ramped-up security. Hopefully it’s going to be low key, I don’t want people to feel like they’re walking into an armed event, but I imagine doing a lot of events in parks, in the daytime, staffers and local police are around.”

Bitter anger over Jan. 6 riots lingers in the House, prompting a week of tense standoff and legislative stalemate

Several Democratic members have privately expressed their concerns to leadership about security back home as threats have risen, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations. Some of these Democrats said they have paid out of their own pocket to increase security at their district offices or install security systems in their homes out of an abundance of caution.

The House on May 19 debated whether to pass legislation to create an independent commission tasked with investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post)

Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared that calling attention to their security concerns could make them or their staff targets for people looking to do harm or cause problems.

Members’ concerns have been validated by the U.S. Capitol Police, who report that threats against lawmakers have increased by 107 percent in just the first five months of the year compared with last year.

“Provided the unique threat environment we currently live in, the Department is confident the number of cases will continue to increase,” the Capitol Police wrote earlier this month in response to an inspector general report.

Democratic leaders said they are trying to be responsive to the concerns of members and included $21.5 million for member safety regarding travel and district office security upgrades as part of a $1.9 billion proposal to fortify security at the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 attack. The bill passed the House on a narrow 213 to 212 vote last week.

Senate Republicans have objected to the price tag, while Senate Democrats have remained lukewarm about some of the legislation’s scope.

“We take seriously the notion as the House, as the institution that the framers wanted to be closer to the people, that we should continue to be on the ground and capable of engaging with our constituents in a variety of ways,” Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said. “The security supplemental will provide additional resources to the Capitol Police to secure the Capitol grounds and additional assistance for members.”

Democratic defections foretell pitfalls for Capitol security bill, despite bipartisan backing for Jan. 6 commission

Several Democrats said Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s decision to aggressively confront Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at the Capitol earlier this month sparked a fresh round of concerns not only about safety on the Hill but whether it would inspire or prove to be a preview of similar behavior by people back home.

Greene (Ga.) followed Ocasio-Cortez off the floor and began yelling loudly, calling out to her and asking why she would not debate her over the “Green New Deal” set of climate-change policies before falsely accusing her of supporting terrorists, naming the Black Lives Matter movement and antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists.

The incident led Ocasio-Cortez to call on leadership to do more to make the Capitol a safe workplace, while Greene responded by calling the New York congresswoman “chicken” for not agreeing to debate her.

“It’s very uncivilized behavior and I think it does put an extra target on the members that Marjorie, whatever her name is, going after somebody then her followers will, I think, continue to target AOC or the Squad, so it’s really unfortunate and I think it’s dangerous,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), referring to the nickname for Ocasio-Cortez and a small group of liberal lawmakers who are women of color who arrived in Washington following the 2018 election.

Rep. Greene aggressively confronts Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, causing New York congresswoman to raise security concerns

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said the text chain she created of members who were in the House chamber when the mob arrived on Jan. 6 “went crazy” after hearing that Greene confronted Ocasio-Cortez, noting that often happens “when there’s a traumatic thing that happens that reminds us of January 6th.”

“I think many of us don’t feel safe and we understand that’s the world we live in now,” she said. “I mean, we were almost killed, so no we don’t feel safe.”

Republicans have chafed at the idea that it is only their supporters who pose a potential risk to lawmakers, often pointing out that a gunman opened fire on a group of GOP lawmakers in 2017, wounding, and nearly killing, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

James T. Hodgkinson let loose 62 rounds from an assault-style rifle at Republicans practicing on a field in Alexandria, Va., ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Police at the time said he deliberately targeted Republicans, and GOP lawmakers have pointed out that his social media accounts were filled with anti-Trump rhetoric and support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and liberal causes.

Tensions over that shooting rose again in recent weeks, when Republican lawmakers learned that the FBI had categorized the incident as “suicide by cop,” when an individual commits an act of violence in hopes of being killed by the police, rather than domestic terrorism.

After shooting, investigators probe trail of political anger left by attacker

Republican lawmakers said they were gobsmacked by this decision and demanded that the FBI revisit it during hearings over the past month with bureau officials and in a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.

“We fear that the FBI’s inability or unwillingness to fully investigate this shooting as a matter of domestic extremism four years ago leaves a blind spot within the Bureau in fully assessing risks we face today,” wrote Scalise and 16 of his Republican colleagues on May 11. “The FBI telling us that James Hodgkinson’s attempt to assassinate dozens of Members of Congress was simply ‘suicide by cop’ does nothing to alleviate this concern.”

Some congressional Republicans strayed from party leaders' message and called for a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack in interviews on May 23. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said Democrats share the blame for the overall tension inside the Capitol because of false allegations that unnamed Republicans gave reconnaissance tours to Trump supporters ahead of the Jan. 6 riot.

“There is zero evidence of that at all,” said Davis, who co-signed a complaint to the Ethics Committee against Democrats for making that charge.

He said that for public events back home each lawmaker’s staff can contact to the Capitol Police to coordinate with the respective local police force to provide sufficient security — a practice that was increased after the 2017 baseball shooting.

The committee staff is also willing to work with aides back in the districts to implement best practices, Davis said. “The bottom line is, there is a very safe way to do public events.” He noted that in the pandemic Democrats stopped doing in-person town halls, so as they begin to step back into the public they will face a choice of doing indoor events — which are easier to secure — or outdoor events for fear of spreading the virus.

There also has been anger over coronavirus precautions put in place by Democrats and the reluctance by some House Republican members to get vaccinated or to tell Brian P. Monahan, the attending Capitol physician, whether they have been.

Last week, the House rejected a Republican attempt to relax guidelines on the wearing of face masks in the chamber.

Defying House rules, several GOP members were in the House chamber Tuesday night and Wednesday without masks — some posing for selfies — drawing fines for their actions in violation of rules established amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tensions over mask usage have been simmering since the attack on the Capitol, because several members tested positive for the coronavirus after spending hours with hundreds of lawmakers and staff in a House hearing room used as a secure location, where several Republicans refused to wear masks.

Monahan has said the current rules are consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and “are necessary given the substantial number of partially vaccinated, unvaccinated, and vaccine-indeterminate individuals. Additional medical safeguards are required to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreak in this vital group.”

Democrats have put the problem of a lack of vaccinations squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, whose numbers are far lower.

“If Minority Leader McCarthy wants to be maskless on the Floor of the House of Representatives, he should get to work vaccinating his Members,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), referring to Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

House rejects move by Republicans to relax mask requirements, adhering to Capitol physician’s guidance

Several Democrats continue to refuse to work with Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election, a growing point of contention as more GOP members portray the Jan. 6 attack as not as bad as it looked despite video showing violent and, at times, deadly clashes.

“If we’re going to hold somebody responsible for every vote that they’ve made, none of us are going to be able to work together,” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) after Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) declined to allow him to be the lead GOP co-sponsor on an opioid addiction bill. “She wanted me to apologize. It will be a cold day in hell before I apologize to her for my vote on January 6th.”

Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) said she has continued to hold meetings with GOP colleagues, including with three Republicans who did vote against certifying the election. But when she heard that Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) played down the Jan. 6 riot at a recent hearing, likening the mob to tourists, she canceled an introductory meeting to discuss mutual issues of interest.

41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege

Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) said member safety is a bipartisan concern, but added that the reluctance of many Republicans to acknowledge the facts about what happened on Jan. 6 and the role President Donald Trump played in inspiring the mob with his falsehoods about the election will make it hard for tensions inside and outside of Washington to die down.

“It is hard to look at some of those colleagues that I know believe and know that the election was secure but chose to vote against the electoral college, and by doing that they are perpetuating this,” Clark said. “I think there’s fear for them as well. I think this issue of member security flows both ways, but we are not going to fix this and bring down the temperature around partisan divide if we’re not operating from a common set of facts however we may differ on policy.”