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Capitol Police bolstering travel security for lawmakers

Capitol Police will be stationed at area airports and Washington’s Union Station on busy travel days, officials said

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

By Alan Fram
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Capitol Police are stepping up security at Washington-area transportation hubs and taking other steps to bolster travel security for lawmakers as Congress continues to react to this month’s deadly assault on the Capitol.

In an email obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the House’s chief law enforcement officer said Capitol Police will be stationed at area airports and Washington’s Union Station on busy travel days. Timothy P. Blodgett, the acting sergeant at arms, wrote that the agency was setting up an online portal for lawmakers’ offices to use to notify them of their travel plans, and urged legislators to report threats and suspicious activity directed at themselves, aides and family.

“Members and staff should remain vigilant of their surroundings and immediately report anything unusual or suspicious,” said the email, which was sent late Thursday.

Blodgett’s letter said lawmakers have previously been advised that they can use office expense accounts to pay for security to protect their offices and events in their districts and protect themselves while they are performing official duties. It also cited a 2017 Federal Elections Commission opinion that they can use campaign contributions to install security systems at their homes.

The message was sent the same day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that lawmakers face threats of violence from an “enemy” within Congress and said money would be needed to improve security. Pelosi’s comments were a startling acknowledgment of escalating internal tensions between the two parties over safety since the Jan. 6 Capitol attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Also Thursday, the acting chief of the Capitol Police said “vast improvements” are needed to protect the Capitol and adjacent office buildings, including permanent fencing.

Such barricades have ringed the complex since the deadly Jan. 6 riot, but many lawmakers have long resisted giving the nation’s symbol of democracy the look of a besieged compound, and leaders were noncommittal about the idea.

[READ: Q&A: The challenges of policing the U.S. Capitol]

Pelosi focused her comments on the anxiety and partisan frictions that have persisted in Congress since Trump supporters’ assault on the Capitol, which led to five deaths. She told reporters she thinks Congress will need to provide money “for more security for members, when the enemy is within the House of Representatives, a threat that members are concerned about.”

Asked to clarify what she meant, Pelosi said, “It means that we have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.”

Some lawmakers who voted for this month’s House impeachment of Trump have reported receiving threats, and initial moves to enhance safety procedures have taken on clear partisan undertones. Some Republicans have loudly objected to having to pass through newly installed metal detectors before entering the House chamber, while Pelosi has proposed fining lawmakers who bypass the devices.

Pelosi did not say whom she meant by her reference to an “enemy” within the House, and a spokesperson provided no examples when asked.

First-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has expressed support for baseless QAnon conspiracy theories, has liked Facebook posts that advocated for violence against Democrats and the FBI. One post suggested shooting Pelosi in the head.

Asked to comment, Greene sent a written statement accusing Democrats and journalists of attacking her because she is “a threat to their goal of Socialism” and supports Trump and conservative values.

Earlier this month, the HuffPost website reported that Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., set off a newly installed metal detector while trying to enter the House chamber and was found to be carrying a concealed gun. Other Republicans have also talked about carrying firearms, which lawmakers are permitted to do, though not on the House or Senate floors.

Since the attack, the Capitol grounds have been surrounded by barrier fences and patrolled by National Guard troops. Yogananda D. Pittman, acting chief of the Capitol Police, said in a statement that based on security assessments by her agency and others, some changes should be lasting.

“In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol,” said Pittman, whose agency provides security for Congress.

Pelosi took no immediate stance about Pittman’s proposal for permanent fencing. Drew Hammill, the speaker’s spokesperson, said she would await a Capitol security review led by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré “to understand what infrastructure changes are necessary.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took the same approach, telling reporters he would “defer to the experts.”

Others panned the permanent fencing suggestion. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said she was “adamantly opposed” and had heard no justification for its need. First-term Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., a former Marine, said it would be wrong to turn the Capitol into a ”fortress.”

The public is barred from carrying firearms on Capitol grounds. Members of Congress can keep guns in their offices or transport them on the campus if they’re unloaded and securely wrapped.

A Senate trial on whether to punish Trump is set to begin next month, following his House impeachment on a charge of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol.

Trump made incendiary remarks to a throng of supporters that day, urging them to march to the building. Lawmakers at the time were formally certifying Biden’s election victory, which Trump has repeatedly and falsely attributed to fraud.