Fear grips Capitol Hill: “Untouchable? We’re all touchable now”

Washington — The attack on the Capitol a week ago has left lawmakers with a heightened sense of vulnerability about their own security — and fresh questions about whether their own leaders and the U.S. Capitol Police are adequately equipped to handle those concerns.   

The sense of unease has been heightened by President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week. The Capitol Police have erected a fence around the Capitol, and the National Guard is now planning to bring 20,000 troops to Washington — an increase of 5,000 from earlier plans, according to a Defense Department official. 

But members of Congress have not been advised on how they should plan to enter the Capitol security perimeter if there are large crowds gathered outside the fence.  

One House Democrat questioned the current policy for guests at the inauguration, which allows members to be accompanied by one person but does not require them to submit the name of the guest for any list or background check. Guests will only need a paper ticket issued by the Joint Inaugural Committee to enter the building. 

There are also no rules in place about whether members or their guests will be allowed to carry guns at the inauguration, a debate that arose when another member attending Monday’s briefing asked whether a personal security guard could come as a guest — and whether that security guard could carry a gun.  

“One person’s personal security is another person’s Proud Boy,” the member said.  

A security briefing Monday night by the U.S. Capitol Police left attendees gravely concerned about their safety as they learned about threats of armed militias plotting to surround the Capitol and kill Democrats in order to install Republicans in power.  

“There is no way in God’s green earth there are no threats leading up to January 6, and now it’s like every organized militia creates in a period of three days a plan to descend upon the Capitol,” one House Democrat told CBS News. “The intelligence failure leading up to the sixth is absolutely undeniable.”  

Adding to members’ concerns is the fact that at least two members of the Capitol Police have been suspended in the wake of the riots — one for taking a selfie with people breaking into the Capitol; another for donning a Make America Great Again hat and providing directions. There are also 10 to 15 other investigations that are ongoing. 

“We can’t have a democracy if too many members of our police force and our military are acting to overturn it and undermine it,” Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat, told constituents in a Facebook livestream Tuesday night. She also accused other members of leading reconnaissance tours on the day before the rioting on January 6.

Sherrill has not answered subsequent questions about which members she saw but vowed, “I’m going to see that they’re held accountable, and if necessary, ensure that they don’t serve in Congress.”

Lawmakers and their staff used to feel relatively safe inside the Capitol, but last week changed that.

“The idea that everyone is untouchable? No, we’re all touchable now. If there’s a nuclear bomb, we accept we’re probably the first to go. But we never though that a mob would be able to get into the Capitol,” a House staff member said. “People are scared that more things will happen before the 20th. People who have been up here for 20 years — even since 9/11 — have never been this scared.”  

The Democratic House member added that the failures on January 6 have prompted questions about the inauguration security plan and also worried that some House leaders hold the misguided belief that those who are planning new attacks on the Capitol will simply stop trying once President Trump leaves office.  

“There is a level of naivete that exists within House leadership where they don’t see what a threat this is,” the lawmaker told CBS News.  

House Republicans, meanwhile, have already begun to chafe at some of the new additional security measures, including the installation of magnetometers outside the House chamber. In the past, lawmakers have enjoyed deference on security matters and have only been required to wear their Congressional pins to get into the House chamber and bypass magnetometers at the doors of the Capitol and House office buildings.   

Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees Capitol Hill housekeeping issues including the Capitol Police, called the move “political correctness run amok” at a Capitol Police briefing Tuesday evening.   

“The threat is outside, not inside. Every resource used inside is one that can’t be used outside,” he said.   

Several Republicans reportedly refused to go through the magnetometers at House votes Tuesday evening, and the number two House Republican, Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, had a heated exchange with officers stationed outside the House chamber, asking, “You’re impeding the ability of members to come and vote?…This was never discussed.”  

A House Democrat said the fact that members of Congress are given deference on such measures makes members less safe.  

“The power dynamic with members of Congress is so detrimental to our own security,” the lawmaker said.  

Beyond the security failures on January 6, other lawmakers have raised concerns about the disparity in treatment between the overwhelmingly White rioters that day compared to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters who demonstrated last summer in response to George Floyd’s death.  

“I thought for sure that we would see at least the kind of presence we saw during the Black Lives Matter administration when the building was protected from peaceful protesters,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American official in Congress, told reporters last week. “I want to emphasize that peaceful demonstrators, people who came in peace, not bringing Molotov cocktails…came to peacefully protest. And yet, the Capitol Building was wrong with all kinds of shows of force.  

Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, who oversees the House subcommittee that funds the Capitol Police, also said there had been a much larger police presence ahead of the protests over the summer.   

“Just being candid, if there were Black people out there I think there would have been a much different response in what they did and so that to me was very, very frustrating,” he told reporters.   

The Congressional Black Caucus convened a hearing Wednesday about the white supremacy that was on display in last week’s attacks. Black Lives Matter and other civil rights leaders were invited to testify. 

At this point, the caucuses representing Black, Hispanic and Asian-American members of Congress have not had a collective discussion around disparities in treatment by the Capitol Police or diversity within the organization itself. 

One Congressional source didn’t want to “put the cart before the horse” and wanted to see what the investigation bears before recommending reforms, but at the same time acknowledged some members are concerned and the issue could be addressed in the future.  

“Those who were calling the shots…were certainly unprepared and underprepared and that was not acceptable,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Representative Joyce Beatty told CBS News. 

The Capitol Police is now under the command of its first Black leader. Yogananda Pittman is serving as the acting chief after former chief Steven Sund resigned following the January 6 attacks. The department faces some of the same diversity challenges as other police departments nationwide. While it does not publish diversity statistics, the Capitol Police have faced multiple lawsuits brought by Black officers alleging discrimination.  

David Martin and Mary Walsh contributed to this report. 

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