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House members want taxpayer money to hire personal security

Tribune Washington Bureau logoTribune Washington Bureau 6/26/2017 By Lindsay Wise
The baseball field where House Majority Whip Congressman Steve Scalise was shot along with 4 others during an ambush style shooting attack by a gunman in Alexandria, Washington, United States on June 14, 2017. © Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images The baseball field where House Majority Whip Congressman Steve Scalise was shot along with 4 others during an ambush style shooting attack by a gunman in Alexandria, Washington, United States on June 14, 2017.

WASHINGTON — House of Representatives lawmakers want $25,000 each to hire private security right away to protect them in their home districts, an unusually quick, bipartisan response to the shooting of a Republican House leader and others at a baseball practice.

A House panel has approved providing an immediate $10 million for the rest of fiscal 2017, which runs through Sept. 30, for that purpose.

Representatives could use the money to pay for an off-duty police officer or private security guard at town halls, fish fries, meet-and-greets or other public events in their districts.

The legislation would also add $7.5 million for Capitol Police to bulk up threat assessment and security measures in Washington for fiscal year 2018 — especially when lawmakers gather in groups — and $5 million for members to invest in cameras, door buzzers, key cards and panic buttons in representatives’ district offices.

The Federal Election Commission also is considering allowing lawmakers to use campaign funds to secure their residences.

Capitol Police provide security at lawmakers’ offices in Washington and at the Capitol building where Congress meets. They also shadow members of the House and Senate leadership teams, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was shot during the baseball practice earlier this month. Scalise was reported to be making good progress and remains hospitalized in fair condition.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., chairman of the subcommittee writing the security budget legislation, wants to provide more money in members’ office accounts for personal protection next year as well, but the exact amount hasn’t been determined yet.

His legislation assumes Congress’ existing budget will be enough to absorb increases for security by tapping unused funds members typically return to treasury at the end of each fiscal year.

“We believe they need additional resources to meet their mission in this polarized political climate,” he said. It still needs to pass through several more steps before final approval, notably support from the full House and Senate.

The measure needs House and Senate approval, but signs for increased funding are positive. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for more funding. “I would support and I have suggested they need a bigger budget,” she said of the Capitol Police.

The top Democrat on Yoder’s subcommittee, Tim Ryan of Ohio, said Yoder’s bill was a good start.

Some members want security details to follow lawmakers wherever they go, he said.

“There are a number of members who have had very specific threats and after the Scalise tragedy are feeling legitimately scared that they will be next,” he added.

The cost for 24-hour personal security guards for all 535 lawmakers in Congress likely would be prohibitive, Yoder said, and could make them less accessible to voters.

“It puts up barriers between the public and members of Congress,” Yoder said.

Lawmakers need to be responsive to the people they represent, he said, and “a wall of security would complicate that … So we’re trying to find a balance.”

Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is one of the members who would like to see heightened personal security for members who want it, at least when they’re in their districts. He estimated it would cost about $45,000 to $50,000 a year to hire a personal security guard to protect a member in their home states during weekends and congressional breaks.

Even before the shooting, Cleaver felt threatened at times. He’s received death threats and racist screeds. A Missouri man firebombed his district office in 2014. More recently, an angry voter screamed at Cleaver at the airport.

“I don’t want to overstate the threats,” he said, “but we only talk about it after a tragedy, and if nothing is done now the next time it happens — not if it happens again — then people will say well it’s probably time for us to do something.”

Yoder’s panel was in the process of writing a bill that included security funding for Congress when gunman James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game in Alexandria, Va. Witnesses said Hodgkinson asked whether the ballplayers were Republicans or Democrats before opening fire.

Members of Congress were badly shaken by the shooting, which wounded Scalise and four others, including two Capitol Police officers who were part of a private security detail traveling with Scalise in his role as a member of the House leadership team.

After the shooting, people wrote menacing messages on Yoder’s official Facebook page, saying it was too bad he wasn’t at the practice too, the congressman said.

For Yoder, heightened security concerns have been a factor in his own reluctance to hold a town hall in his suburban Kansas City district.

Town halls in some other Republican-held districts have become rowdy affairs over the past seven months as voters upset about President Donald Trump’s victory in November mobilized at a grass-roots level to pressure their representatives to resist Trump’s agenda.

Yoder said he’s been working with media groups and Trump resistance organizations in his district to find a safe venue for a town hall that will accommodate a “productive dialogue” instead of devolving into a “circus”

He prefers telephone town halls for now.

“Members of Congress are being shot in broad daylight because of what they believe in. Of course we’re going to be concerned,” he said. “We just want to find a safe, constructive format for both me and the constituents.”

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