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Lawmakers debate potential costs of added security

Democrats and Republicans in Congress differ on steps to take to protect themselves and their staffs after the Arizona shootings.

January 12, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands guard at the Capitol, where the law enforcement presence has been beefed up in the wake of the Arizona shootings.
A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands guard at the Capitol, where the law… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Partisan division over lawmakers' security needs surfaced in the Capitol on Wednesday as representatives returned to work after the Arizona shootings that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including a congresswoman.

Democrats suggested extra funding might be needed to beef up security in districts where lawmakers feel particularly exposed, while Republicans sought remedies that would not require additional money.

Lawmakers received security briefings, and officials said the House Administration Committee was reviewing arrangements for representatives and their staffs.

As many as 10 lawmakers have suggested they might carry personal firearms for protection, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah).

"I don't think we need a special piece of legislation to protect members of Congress," said Chaffetz, who occasionally carries a semiautomatic Glock handgun while in his home district but does not plan to carry the weapon in the capital. "We don't need to spend more money."

After Saturday's shootings in Tucson, lawmakers weighed an uneasy balance between protecting themselves and maintaining open access to their constituents.

Several representatives, including Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), said they would hold their own Congress on Your Corner events this week, similar to the one Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was conducting when she and 18 others were shot.

But there were new reminders of potential dangers.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that the FBI had arrested a Palm Springs man on suspicion of threatening Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). In voicemail messages last month, Charles Turner Haberman, 32, threatened to kill McDermott because of his position during the tax-cut debate, authorities said.

McDermott issued a statement saying he remained "focused on serving my constituents."

Democrats and Republicans met behind closed doors for their first full security briefing since the shootings. Several lawmakers circulated proposals for legislation to better protect their staff, particularly in their home districts, where many legislators feel most exposed.

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) sought to rescind the 5% cut to office budgets that the House approved last week and to add 10% for security — a proposal unlikely to advance in a Congress concerned with federal deficit spending.

"There are expenses associated with securing our district staffs," Jackson said. "No American should ignore that basic fact."

A potentially more modest spending proposal by some Democrats would provide funds for representatives who must reimburse local law enforcement who provide security at district events.

One proposal discussed by both Democrats and Republicans was to have the U.S. Marshals Service play a bigger role in investigating threats against members.

House members who attended the security briefing described widespread concern.

"The mood was somber," said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.). "We have to get straight as to what we could be doing in terms of protecting our staff — not so much here, but back in the districts."

Times staff writer Phil Willon in Riverside contributed to this report.

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