Shaken Lawmakers Soften Partisan Tone While Uniting in Concern

WASHINGTON — Representative Chuck Fleischmann stood just outside the House chamber in the Capitol on Wednesday morning recounting his harrowing survival of a shooting rampage aimed at a group of lawmakers practicing for an annual charity baseball game. He was still wearing his cleats and red jersey with “Republicans” emblazoned across the front.
But for once, such party labels were not the defining trait. Badly shaken members of Congress — both Democratic and Republican — were united in concern for those wounded and in shock at the events as they assessed where the nation’s increasingly harsh political climate had led them: an early-morning playing field sprayed with gunshots that could have killed dozens of their colleagues, aides, security personnel and volunteers involved with the game.

“I never thought anything like that could happen on a ball field,” said Mr. Fleischmann, a Tennessee Republican who conceded that he was still rattled after bloodying himself diving into a dugout to huddle with his colleagues to flee what appears to be a politically motivated assault.
The sense that national political conflict had escalated out of control was underscored by the fact that the gunman had taken out his deranged political rage on preparations for a rare congressional event that actually brings lawmakers together. Though the annual congressional baseball game pits Republicans against Democrats, it is more a moment for bipartisan camaraderie, fun and bragging rights for frustrated jocks who get to suit up for a good cause.
But such gatherings cannot mask the acrid partisan atmosphere in Congress as well as back home, where lawmakers say they are increasingly worried about hostile audiences and constituents filled with vitriol who are unrestrained in venting at their member of Congress.
“That title can sometimes trigger a lot of things in people,” said Representative Ryan A. Costello, Republican of Pennsylvania. “You get a lot of angry people. That doesn’t mean they are bad people. That doesn’t mean they are out to do any harm.”
“It is the one person out of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 who once they know your whereabouts and when you are going to be there and who you are going to be with who can plan something like this,” he said.
The security of lawmakers has been a continuing concern since the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic representative from Arizona, and the killing of six others at a horrific event in Tucson in 2011. During a closed-door briefing with House security officials on Wednesday, members of both parties recounted recent death threats, and the stunning attack had justifiably heightened their fears.
“I’m shaken up,” said Representative Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina, who said he may have spoken with the gunman as he left practice early. “My colleagues were targeted today by somebody that wanted to kill them. Trent Kelly from Mississippi played third base. He’s one of my best friends, and he was the closet person to the shooter so he was targeted first. And by the grace of God he was missed.”
Congressional leaders promised to explore ways to increase protection and find ways to pay for it. But lawmakers were also adamant that they could not let risks to their safety drive them away from the public contact essential to doing their jobs properly.
“We are not going to run and hide,” said Representative Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, expressed a similar sentiment in calling for the game to go forward Thursday despite the unsettling assault.
“We cannot let that be a victory for the assailant or anyone who would think that way,” she said.
There was widespread relief on Capitol Hill that the toll was not higher given the unexpected nature of the attack on an early morning baseball practice and the many lawmakers who were vulnerable. Lawmakers praised as heroes the Capitol and Alexandria, Va., police officers who took on the gunman and limited what all agreed could have been catastrophic.
The day’s sense of togetherness was evident as some House members crossed the center aisle of the chamber to sit among colleagues in the other party.
Ms. Pelosi made a subtle reference to the usual partisan sentiment in the House after Speaker Paul D. Ryan brought members to their feet with his emotional declaration that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
“To my colleagues,” Ms. Pelosi said, “you’re going to hear me say something you’ve never heard me say before. I identify myself with the remarks of the speaker.”
Calls for civility and less-charged language were widespread, a recognition that both parties have been too eager to fan the political flames.
“We, as Republicans and Democrats, have to come together and say, as a team, and as members of Congress in the greatest country in the history of the world, that this hate and this rhetoric has got to be toned down,” said Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who was at the practice.
“I have no illusion as to how politically divided we are,” Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, said while she expressed confidence that “together, we will be able to heal, support one another and weather this storm.”
Members of Congress and political leaders have called for partisan de-escalation after previous traumatizing events only to see the toxic tone roar back. Given the yawning political divide and the sharp disagreement on the direction of the nation, it will remain a challenge to hold the more divisive political instincts at bay for long.

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