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Tribune Washington Bureau , Published January 10 2011

Legislators reconsidering their security

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the shooting of one of their own, members of Congress have been forced into an uneasy reconsideration of how to freely interact at public events at a time when some constituents may want to do them harm.

Lawmakers vowed Sunday to carry on their publicly scheduled events this week, but acknowledged they would be re-evaluating upcoming Congress on the Corner type events like the one where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head during a gunman's rampage on Saturday.

Many congressional offices said they would consider tightened security measures at their public gatherings, even as they struggled privately with how to strike a balance between their desire to meet openly in their communities and the need to protect themselves and others.

“The mood among members is very sober and solemn,” said freshman Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., from a weekend retreat with 90 new members in Williamsburg, Va.

“They've expressed fear for their families, their children. They have been prayerful,” she said. “It gives all of us pause.”

Lawmakers spoke passionately about their intent to preserve one of the signature elements of American political society — open access to elected officials — in an era when political rhetoric leaves many conversations bordering on the uncivil.

Another freshman legislator, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a young father of five, noted on “Meet the Press” that his wife was particularly shaken by the shootings.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who was provided a security detail by Kansas City police after being spat on during last year's health care debate, was rethinking security options for his monthly "Coffee with Cleaver" event in January.

And Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., who has held more than 70 "Government in the Grocery" events since he took office four years ago, was evaluating how to proceed with one planned for this month. Spokeswoman Leslie Oliver said the grocery stores, too, would likely want to weigh in.

Yet elected officials almost universally rejected any retreat from the public appearances they have scheduled for the days ahead.

“If I get to the point where I believe I need security or a police presence to do my job, then it's time to rethink,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who was a young congressional aide in 1978 when her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan of California, was gunned down in Guyana while investigating the Jonestown cult led by Jim Jones. She plans to appear at an event today in her district.

“You have to be able to engage with your constituents,” Speier said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was a county supervisor in San Francisco when fellow supervisor Harvey Milk was gunned down in 1978, said, “I have seen firsthand the effects of assassination, and there is no place for this kind of violence in our political discourse. It must be universally condemned.”

More than 800 members of the House, their spouses and staff joined an afternoon conference call Sunday during which federal law enforcement officials emphasized the importance of notifying local authorities before town hall events. They also urged lawmakers to make sure local law enforcement officials know their home addresses.

The U.S. Capitol Police and House sergeant at arms reiterated that Saturday's shooting rampage in Arizona did not appear to be linked to any wider conspiracy against members of Congress.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called for a thorough review of all security procedures.

The House has halted all legislative action next week, but will consider a resolution Wednesday honoring Giffords and the other shooting victims.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., called on her colleagues to engage in an a honest dialogue when they return to Washington about the responsibility of both parties to dial down the rhetoric that can incite less stable members of society.

Rep. Frank Guinta, a freshman Republican from New Hampshire who has several events scheduled for the end of the month, told his wife on Saturday to be mindful of the family's safety.

“I essentially asked her to be a little more aware of her surroundings,” he said. “As a husband I want to protect my family; as a member of Congress this is not going to dissuade me from meeting with constituents in public.”

(c) 2011, Tribune Co.