Delegation: Arizona shooting not a cause for beefed-up security

WASHINGTON-There was no extra security at the Milford Senior Center this morning when Rep. Rosa DeLauro spoke to a small crowd about the Republican effort to repeal health reform.

Similarly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal hasn’t altered the arrangements for his two-week “listening tour” across Connecticut. And Rep. Chris Murphy hopes to hold one of his usual “Congress on Your Corner” events later this week.

In the wake of the Arizona shooting rampage that targeted Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday, lawmakers are returning to Washington for a bipartisan briefing on congressional safety, instead of a bruising political debate over health care reform.

And their offices are getting a steady stream of new guidance about how to keep lawmakers out of harm’s way. But Connecticut representatives said they were loath to add new safety measures that might impede their exchanges with constituents.

The real question, some said, was whether this weekend’s tragic shooting rampage would change political discourse, not whether it would affect their security habits.

Even those who have gotten death threats in the past, such as Rep. Jim Himes, said they had no plans to ramp up screenings of participants at public meetings or curtail their public schedules.

“I’ve thought about this a lot in the last 48 hours,” said Himes, D-4th District. Issues of personal security are “always vaguely in the back of one’s mind” at town meetings and other public events. (Himes received two threatening calls to his Norwalk office last year, which were investigated and handled by local police.)

But “it’s our job to be accessible and in public,” Himes added. “I don’t want people to have to go through magnetometers. I don’t want people to have to submit their names in advance.”

Murphy said the Arizona incident “will cause all of us to re-evaluate some of our procedures.” But, he said, there’s little that public officials can really do to prevent the kind of attack that happened this weekend.

In Saturday’s incident, Giffords, along with some of her aides and her constituents, were shot by a gunman who came to a public event she was holding at her local grocery store.

“I don’t think we should spend time putting walls around our office that ultimately can’t protect you against someone as deranged as the guy in Arizona was,” said Murphy.

“I don’t want to be walking around my district with a security detail,” Murphy said. “I don’t think I need it, and I think it sends a message of distance between you and your constituents.”

But he and others expressed hope that the attack against Giffords would help diminish the vitriolic, sometimes violent, language tossed around in today’s political debates.

The shooting in Arizona has drawn fresh attention, in particular, to a political map that Sarah Palin put out during the 2010 elections, featuring what appears to be the crosshairs of a gun sight over certain congressional districts, including that of Giffords.

Murphy said it’s “dangerous to draw any direct conclusions” about those images and what happened in Arizona.

But “no major politicians should be putting cross hairs on people’s district, and that’s true no matter what,” Murphy said. “The tone of political speech in this country has to come down a notch.”

He said there’s a clear difference between legitimate, heated political debate and inflammatory rhetoric aimed at revving up public anger.

Himes echoed that sentiment, but he didn’t see much hope that this would be a transformative moment in the tone of American politics.

“For three months, people are going to be cautious about the words they use and then go back to inflammatory language,” he predicted.

To be sure, past efforts to bring more civility to politics have foundered.

In one recent example, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, eagerly signed his name to a “civility pledge” being circulated by a new group seeking to usher in new era of kinder, gentler politics.

As it turned out, Lieberman was one of only three lawmakers who put their name to the 32-word pledge, crafted by the And on Jan. 3, the leader of the group dissolved it for lack of interest.

“I must admit to scratching my head as to why only three members of Congress, and no governors, would agree to what I believe is a rather low bar,” the Civility Project’s founder, Mark DeMoss, wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to Lieberman and the two other signers. “I’m worried about where we’re headed as a country on the civility scale.”

Last month, Lieberman and Chris Shays, a former Republican congressman from Connecticut, were among those helping to launch a new civility project called “No Labels.”

“There’s everything right about being conservative and everything right about being liberal in terms of staking out a position,” said Shays. “The the issue is can those different perspectives find common ground?”

He said lawmakers need breathing room to make compromises, without fear of being subject to political retribution by leaders or being vilified in the next election cycle. But only time will tell if the new push for civility fares any better than its predecessors.