US

After Capitol Riot, Lawmakers Chafe at Security Measures

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in both parties are increasingly agitating to scale back the security measures put in place around the Capitol in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot, intensifying a debate over how to balance safety concerns and public access to a building that is a symbol of democracy.

Some Republicans have turned the dispute over Capitol security into a political talking point, mocking the heavily protected complex, now ringed with National Guard troops and razor-wire-topped fencing, as “Fort Pelosi.”

But many Democrats are just as unhappy with the barriers encircling the area and the troops patrolling it, and are pushing to get rid of both despite concerns by the Capitol Police about removing the extra layers of security in the face of lingering threats.

“I want it down quickly,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said in an interview, referring to the high perimeter fence. “It sends such an ugly message about the Capitol and who we are. It’s just not the way the Capitol should be run.”

There are also bipartisan calls to dismiss the National Guard troops who have remained at the Capitol since first being deployed there on the day of the attack.

The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee issued a joint statement this week saying they were “deeply troubled” by the security posture at the Capitol, arguing that it was excessive, costly and could cause readiness problems for the National Guard.

“As the U.S. Capitol Police continues to build its personnel capacity, there is no doubt that some level of support from the National Guard should remain in the National Capital Region to respond to credible threats against the Capitol,” wrote Representatives Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the committee’s chairman, and Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican. “However, the present security posture is not warranted at this time.”

The issue has laid bare a divide between many lawmakers who want the Capitol to return to a sense of normalcy and the police and law enforcement officials who are tasked with protecting them. No lawmakers were injured during the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, though some had close calls. But nearly 140 officers suffered injuries during the assault, which left five people dead.

The tension is a familiar phenomenon in Washington, where past attacks and security incidents at the nation’s most iconic national buildings — the Capitol and the White House — have led to increasingly robust fortifications around both, often prompting controversy. In the case of the Capitol, the recent security measures have been particularly jarring, closing off roads, walkways and nearly 60 acres of picturesque, parklike grounds that surround the building where Congress meets.

The National Guard deployment, perimeter fence and other enhanced security measures are costing taxpayers nearly $2 million a week.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced this week that more than 2,200 National Guard troops would remain in Washington through May 23 to assist federal law enforcement agencies in protecting Congress. The deployment is about half the contingent that arrived immediately following the attack.

The Defense Department and Capitol Police plan to further reduce the number of Guard personnel guarding Congress “as conditions allow,” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

The Capitol Police Board, an unelected body that oversees the force, had initially intended to begin removing fencing around the complex this week, but a document its members submitted to congressional leaders said the barriers might have to remain until after President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, an event that has not yet been scheduled.

The acting chief of the Capitol Police has warned lawmakers that intelligence material suggests that extremist groups, including those that carried out the Jan. 6 riot, want to blow up the Capitol and kill lawmakers around Mr. Biden’s first formal address to Congress.

“We have no intention of keeping the National Guard soldiers or that fencing any longer than what is actually needed,” the acting chief, Yogananda D. Pittman, told a House Appropriations subcommittee last month.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California is following the lead of law enforcement on security issues, and backing both the guard deployment and the fencing, according to her spokesman.

“The Speaker expects security professionals to make the security decisions and continues to support the U.S. Capitol Police’s requests for the temporary fencing and support from the National Guard,” said Drew Hammill, Ms. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.

But lawmakers are growing impatient to see the security measures removed, and Republicans, relegated to minority status in Congress, have grown increasingly vocal in expressing their complaints.

“We had a hearing about emerging threats, and there aren’t any,” said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “We need to get the fence down. We need the barbed wire down. Send our troops home. This is America, not Stalag 17.”

Mr. Inhofe and other top Republicans sent a letter to Chief Pittman on Friday expressing concern that there was no justification for what they called “intrusive” fencing and a “burdensome” deployment of National Guard troops.

Mr. Inhofe said in an interview that he had researched what he could do to get the fence removed, but found no recourse since Democrats control both chambers of Congress.

“I’m kind of helpless,” he said.

Still other Republicans suggest that Democrats are maintaining the security posture as a public reminder of the damage and horror inflicted on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald J. Trump — a day they would sooner forget.

“It’s ridiculous,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said of the barbed-wire fence around the building. “It’s something that’s not necessary, and I think it’s people overcompensating because they made poor decisions leading up to January 6.”

Others have sought to use the militarized zone around the Capitol as a political weapon against Democrats. Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a first-term Republican who compared Jan. 6 to “1776” before the attack, released a digital ad in which she tours the perimeter fence and brands the complex “Fort Pelosi,” claiming that Democrats would “spare no expense to protect themselves.”

“Speaker Pelosi,” Ms. Boebert says, “tear down this wall.”

Democrats scoff at the charge, saying they are also eager for the barriers to disappear, but that stronger security measures must replace them.

“The current fence — that has to go,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Administration Committee. “But that doesn’t mean that we are going to back to a situation where the fence is the front door. There is no other legislative body in the world that allowed someone with an unexamined backpack to go right up to the door leading into the Capitol building itself. That is not reasonable.”

Congress is considering a spending package to fund enhanced security measures recommended by a task force created in response to the Jan. 6 attack.

The task force, led by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré, has recommended hiring more than 800 Capitol Police officers, developing mobile fencing around the complex and changing Capitol Police Board procedures to allow the chief of the agency to quickly summon the National Guard during an emergency.

Many Democrats said they wanted the fence down as quickly as possible, but would defer to security professionals.

“It’s not what America is about,” Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said. “But you’ve got to follow the recommendations of security.”

Mr. Kaine said he was “completely fine” with Mr. Austin’s decision to keep the National Guard at the Capitol longer.

“Let’s protect ourselves without making it look like we’re still under siege,” Mr. Kaine said. “I just don’t like the look of the razor wire. The families that live around here, they want to be able to walk across the Capitol grounds or, on a spring day, fly a kite. They ought to be able to do that.”

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.




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