House begins sweeping security overhaul post-attack

The deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection is nearly a month past — but the aftershocks continue to ripple through the building long considered a safe haven for lawmakers and staff.

The House took an unprecedented step Tuesday night, voting to levy hefty fines against colleagues who bypass the recently installed metal detectors that surround the chamber. The reason is simple but speaks to the new reality: lawmakers are afraid of being injured, or worse, by colleagues trying to sneak weapons on to the House floor.

The fines — $5,000 for the first violation, $10,000 for any thereafter — are just the latest security measure to be implemented in an attempt to reassure members and their staff that the House is safe. But that remains an elusive goal, lawmakers said Tuesday as they returned to a Capitol still surrounded by concrete barricades and barbed wire.

“January 6 changed us forever, and we have to recognize that we’re living, at least in the near term, in a new and somewhat complicated country,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), one of 32 members who recently wrote to Democratic and Republican leadership seeking more security measures.

In the weeks since the attack, the thousands of people who work in the complex remain shaken — not just because they lived through the insurrection, but because many lawmakers and staffers say they don’t feel safe in or out of the Capitol amid rising threats targeting members of both parties.

Some members have taken matters into their own hands, purchasing security for their homes with campaign or personal funds, investing in body armor, applying for concealed carry permits or even considering moving their family. “Do I understand why more members of Congress are acquiring firearms? Yes, I do,” Phillips added, noting that he, too, has bought more security measures for his home.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken multiple steps to boost protection, including appointing a task force to conduct an immediate security review of the Capitol complex. The speaker received her first briefing on that last week with the full review to be wrapped up by March 5.

Pelosi has also held discussions with her leadership team recently — including during private calls on Sunday and Tuesday — about drafting outside legislation to form a commission to investigate the events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“The security of the U.S. Capitol Complex and all who serve and work in it is of the highest priority,” Pelosi said in a letter Tuesday evening, confirming plans to move forward with supplemental security funding and a commission to investigate the attacks.

Pelosi’s announcement to create a commission is new, but the idea has been kicked around for weeks. In fact, hours after rioters sieged the Capitol and the House resumed the election certification process on the floor, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) had a conversation with Pelosi and House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) about launching a 9/11-style commission.

“We talked about bipartisan action to address this, to make sure it never happens again,” said Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee. “But we’ll see if they take that route.”

The independent commission could also examine some of the more contentious questions about Jan. 6, including what role GOP members had, if any, in the day’s events, according to Democrats familiar with the planning discussions. The possibility of Republican involvement has continued to rattle Democrats — including Pelosi, who notably said last week that the “enemy is within the House.”

The issue of member security was also raised Tuesday during a weekly call between Pelosi’s team and Democratic chiefs of staff. The senior Democrats received a briefing from the acting Sergeant-at-Arms about additional security measures being taken to boost members’ safety as they travel to and from Washington.

Democratic aides asked how they report internal threats and what’s being done to address the massive Capitol police leadership failures on and since Jan. 6.

One staffer on the call said that they had flagged “direct” threats of violence against their boss to Capitol Police officials, but still hadn’t received a response weeks later. In at least one instance, Capitol Police have suggested that staff could work with local law enforcement if they needed urgent help. The Capitol Police public affairs office did not return a request for comment.

Members of both parties have also asked Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for more flexibility in using official funds to protect themselves, their staff and their families — in addition to more funds going forward. In 2017, the House approved an additional $25,000 for each House member’s office budget to increase security in the wake of the shooting that left House Minority Whip Steve Scalise wounded.

Pelosi confirmed in her letter Tuesday that the House will move ahead with a supplemental funding package for member security in the coming weeks, although there’s still no timeline of when that bill could come to the floor.

Some of the most high profile Democrats have been besieged with threats in recent weeks. And Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have also become high-profile targets; one pro-Trump organizer is even planning a “MAGA Sellout” tour against members seen as disloyal to Trump. McCarthy, meanwhile, has pleaded with House Republicans to stop publicly attacking each other over their impeachment votes — in part for safety concerns.

Fencing around the building is also under discussion after the acting head of Capitol police suggested last week that it could be permanent. But top lawmakers, including Pelosi in private conversations with her leadership team, have noted that Congress itself would need to appropriate the funds.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are also grappling with threats outside of the now-heavily fortified Capitol grounds — including in airports, where some members have been harassed and forced to hide in bathrooms. To that end, the House Sergeant-at-Arm announced last week that the Capitol Police would be beefing up security at D.C.-area airports and train stations.

Inside the Capitol, relations remain strained between many Democrats and Republicans after Jan. 6. Some Republicans say they’re outraged by accusations that they helped fuel the attacks, and have revolted against Democratic security measures such as the metal detectors outside the House chamber. They point out that lawmakers are allowed to sidestep security when they enter the Capitol and office buildings.

But one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, tried to bring a gun to the House floor recently — which Democrats said only justified their efforts to crack down on security inside the chamber.

And Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), the controversial GOP freshman who previously declared she would tote a handgun around the Capitol complex, circulated a letter Tuesday urging other members to oppose “unconstitutional metal detector fines.”

The fines are “an attempt to capitalize on the crisis that erupted in our nation’s capital on January 6th and unconstitutionally punish Members of Congress that are deemed political opponents,” Boebert wrote, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO.

In addition to physical security, Congressional officials are closely eyeing a less visible threat to members and staff: the looming mental health crisis. The acting Capitol Police chief told Congress that her force is struggling with PTSD; two law enforcement officers have died by suicide since Jan. 6.

The Veterans Affairs Department announced this week it will be dispatching mobile vet centers — one on the House side, one on the Senate side — to offer mental health resources to Capitol Police, National Guard and staff “in crisis.” Pelosi also announced plans Tuesday for her staff to help members tape their recollections of the Jan. 6 attacks as part of the healing process.

Some members have already opened up about their harrowing experience. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has faced of long barrage of threats in the past, not only shared her experience of trying to hide on Jan. 6 as rioters stormed the Capitol, but also revealed that she is a sexual assault survivor and that the two experiences are aggravating one another.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” Ocasio-Cortez said Monday evening on Instagram. “I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”

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Pelosi wrestles with House factions ahead of Supreme Court confirmation fight

Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have to worry about confirming a Supreme Court nominee, but she’s got her own drama to deal with.

The California Democrat is under pressure to placate an animated liberal base eager to battle Republicans over filling the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the waning weeks before the election.

Pelosi also must attempt to appease a coalition of vulnerable moderate Democrats, desperate for a coronavirus relief deal they see as key to their reelection. These centrist Democrats are worried the Supreme Court fight could overshadow any negotiations, not to mention make the party seem extreme.

Both factions see their priorities as key to delivering Democrats sweeping power in the House, Senate and White House next year. Whether Pelosi can keep her sprawling caucus from splintering in the month before the election will be critical.

“Leadership has to try to tend to the many different voices in a big very tent. And I understand that,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Oversight Committee.

“But I think this goes beyond an issue of politics,” Connolly added. “It’s about the future of the country. And that’s why I favor robust action that would have been considered really out there — bold — a few years ago.”

Since the death of the liberal icon on Friday, Pelosi has carefully sought to temper progressive expectations about the Supreme Court fight without dampening their enthusiasm — and risk depressing voter turnout on the left over the issue.

Liberal Democrats, both in Congress and leading grassroots groups across the country, have been incensed as they watched Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lock down support for a vote before the election or during a lame duck that could give the court a conservative majority for decades.

Cash is flooding in, and protests have lined the streets of Washington. Activists and even some elected Democrats have begun to talk seriously about packing the courts or an end to the Senate filibuster — historic institutional changes that establishment Democrats have long rejected.

Some chatter even emerged on the left of pursuing the impeachment of a Trump appointee like Attorney General William Barr in a last-ditch attempt to slow the process, though progressives in Washington have been far more restrained in their messaging. Senior Democrats have also repeatedly privately dismissed the idea, saying it wouldn’t work anyway.

“We’ve got to talk about what’s at stake now, what’s at stake in the lives of millions and millions of people,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when asked about liberal calls for court-packing or ending the filibuster. “Health care is on the ticket once again. ... This fight touches the lives of every single person in this country.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., questions Postmaster General Louis DeJoy during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

The most progressive voices in the party, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have clearly articulated their support for Senate Democrats to ultimately strike back, such as eliminating the legislative filibuster and adding justices to the court.

“Frankly, I think if Vice President Biden wants to accomplish anything significant in his term, that is what is going to be necessary,” the liberal Democrat told POLITICO. “If I’m Joe Biden and I completely shut down the possibility of expanding the court, I would seriously question what you can even accomplish as president.”

But Ocasio-Cortez has also made a concerted effort to stay on message with the Democratic party leadership in the crucial final run-up to the November election.

Over the weekend, Ocasio-Cortez appeared alongside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a New York City press conference, where both insisted that Democrats would keep their options open. And Ocasio-Cortez also said even though Biden hasn’t embraced far-left ideas like court-packing, he is at least “open” to different ideas and she thinks he is “calculating correctly.”

The demands of the far left could hardly look more different than the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, which is more worried about holding onto their seats in November. They say the party’s only response should be talking more about the threats to Americans’ health care — repeating the playbook that helped propel the party back to power in the House in 2018.

And most centrist Democrats have little interest in heeding demands of outside liberal groups and even some members, which they fear will cause lasting damage to the institution and may only backfire the next time the Republican party seizes power.

“We have to focus on right now and protecting health care today,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who leads the caucus’ messaging arm. “If we’re privileged enough to win the House, the Senate and the White House, we’ll have lots of opportunities to talk about solutions. But right now, we need to call out the president for what he is attempting to do.”

Moderate Democrats were privately furious that some of their more liberal counterparts, like Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), would float the idea of expanding the court in retaliation for Republicans ramming through a new Supreme Court justice this year.

And even publicly, some congressional Democrats argue that the vocal calls for scorched-earth tactics right now could have unintended consequences for the party.

“Why provide anybody any ammunition at all to attack us for something that is speculative?” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The Republicans would love nothing more than to shift this into an academic discussion about the number of times that the Supreme Court’s size has changed.”

Pelosi refused to rule out extreme dilatory tactics like impeachment during an interview on ABC on Sunday, saying the House will use “every arrow in our quiver” to stop Republicans from confirming President Donald Trump’s third high court nominee. But Democrats privately shut down the idea of pursuing impeachment. And Pelosi has repeatedly tried to shift the focus to what the Supreme Court fight means for preserving or destroying Obamacare.

Pelosi and Schumer circulated talking points encouraging Democrats to frame the Supreme Court fight in those terms. And Pelosi has repeatedly emphasized the success of Democrats’ almost singular health care message in 2018.

Pelosi speculated that Republicans and Trump were rushing to fill the high court vacancy to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a move she predicted would backfire on the GOP like the party's effort to dismantle the law in 2018. The Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments in the Trump administration's challenge to Obamacare the week after the election.

“You overturn the Affordable Care Act, you overturn preexisting conditions, 2018 will be a way of life for Republicans,” Pelosi told Democrats on a private call Tuesday, according to sources on the call.

Many moderate Democrats have already made health care a top issue in their reelection campaigns this fall.

But they’ve also begun to feel the intense pressure on another issue: economic relief for tens of millions of Americans who’ve been left struggling as the U.S. economy sputtered over the last six months due to the pandemic.

“People in my district are worried about their pocketbooks and their kids,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a frontliner, said in an interview Tuesday. “And while they feel very strongly about the importance of a lifetime appointment … they want to know when the next Covid emergency relief bill is gonna be here, they want to know how they can get masks and supplies to keep their businesses open, they want to know what’s happening with unemployment.”

Democrats in the most competitive races have begun vocally pressing Pelosi and her leadership team for more dramatic steps on a coronavirus relief package. More than 20 Democrats, including Slotkin, signed a bipartisan letter to Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday urging them to keep lawmakers in Washington until a relief bill can be passed — even if it means less time to campaign before November.

“This should be our number one priority in the coming days,” lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the New York Times and obtained by POLITICO.

At least a dozen Democrats are also privately discussing joining a GOP discharge petition that would force a vote on additional aid for small business grants, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. That includes Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) and Jared Golden (D-Maine) — all facing tough reelection battles this fall.

In one sign of hope, Pelosi told her members in a private call on Tuesday that she’s still pushing to secure a pandemic aid package with GOP leaders — regardless of the intense discussions over the court across the Capitol — with hopes of delivering relief before the election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told members on Tuesday they should be expected to remain in town next week and he is keeping the schedule open for a potential vote.

“Getting into these beltway arguments, in this bubble, when people are hurting, small businesses are going out of business every day for good. … What are we quibbling about here?” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), referring to the debate over court-packing and nuking the filibuster.

“There’s still an alarming rate of Covid positive tests in this country. I just think it’s a little premature to talk about what Democrats are gonna do in the Senate in January.”

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