It was a decidedly somber mood Sunday for public officials, one day after the shocking massacre that occurred in Tucson, Ariz., near a Safeway parking lot, in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head, six people died, and at least a dozen others were wounded. The potential political motivations behind the shooting sent a chill through the day’s normally quibbling political chatter, with members downplaying their deep disagreements with one another.
“Members of Congress either need to turn down the volume … or this darkness will never, ever be overcome with light. If we don’t stop it soon, I think this nation’s going to be bitterly divided to a point where I fear for the future of our children,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., on NBC's Meet the Press.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin had harsh words for activists who use violent vocabulary to make political points. “The phrase, ‘Don't retreat. Reload.’ Putting crosshairs on congressional districts as targets. These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response,” Durbin said on CNN's State of the Union.
Lawmakers’ stiff upper lip was also on display. Collectively, their message was one of commitment to their offices despite the potential dangers involved and an unwillingness to shrink from the public eye. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a brief statement Sunday morning. Boehner said the violence that shook the country “has no place in our society.”
“No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty,” Boehner added.
Congress will be approaching its business from a different, potentially more conciliatory angle in the wake of the Tucson attack. Some issues, like gun control, will have a higher profile than they would have if the shooting hadn’t occurred. Lawmakers also will tackle other questions, like the nation’s growing deficit, that under less grave circumstances could prompt a partisan shouting match. “We need to stop, pause, and reflect, but then we’re back to business,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander on CNN.
Durbin pointedly brought up the firearms issue. “At some point, we need to ask, ‘How did this man with mental instability wind up with such a weapon?’” Durbin said on CNN Sunday morning. The shooter, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, fired several rounds after shooting Giffords at point-blank range.
“It’s not that the gun was evil. It was in the hands of an evil person,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., on Meet the Press. Franks has been outspoken in expressing his anger about the shooting. Giffords, like Franks, is an active supporter of gun-owners rights.
Health care, until Saturday one of the most volatile topics on the horizon, is on the back burner for now. The House had been poised to stage a politically incendiary vote this week to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, but GOP leaders called off that vote Saturday night. Boehner also ordered that flags on the House side of the Capitol be flown at half staff to honor Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, an aide to Giffords, who died in the shooting.
The health care law has caused some of the biggest divisions among Republicans and Democrats in Congress in the last year, and Republicans consider their control of the House to have been won in large part due to their aggressive protests against it. Giffords, a moderate Democrat representing a relatively conservative district along the U.S-Mexico border, narrowly won reelection last year despite her support for the health care bill; many of her moderate Democratic colleagues lost their reelection campaigns.
Lawmakers used words like “tragic” and “heinous” describing the incident and called for prayers and support for the victims of the shooting. But they also made clear that their collective anger over the incident wouldn’t stop them from continuing to meet with their constituents and from doing their jobs, although they all will do so more carefully. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told National Journal in an interview that he hardly ever has security detail when he meets with people in his state. “I get death threats of some kind on a semi-regular basis,” he said. “If they’re low-key, my staff sometimes doesn’t even let me know.”
“It needs to be a wakeup call for people who treat security in a cavalier way,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., noting that a simple police presence protects at events also protects their staff and constituents.