Shooting prompts calls for a more civil Congress

Gabrielle Giffords

The 112th Congress went barreling into all-out partisan warfare, as expected, in its opening week, and then the unexpected took over.

A man gunned down a member of Congress on Saturday, January 8, in broad daylight at a meet-and-greet the member was having with constituents in Tucson, Arizona. The suspect, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, shot 20 citizens, killing six —including a nine-year-old girl and a federal district court judge—and leaving U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with a critical wound to the head.

The incident sent shockwaves through Congress and prompted urgent calls from both Republicans and Democrats to tone down the inflammatory partisan debate that has prevailed over many of the nation’s most contentious issues.

Newly sworn in House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) immediately announced that normal House business scheduled for the first full week of the new Congressional session would be postponed. That included postponement of a politically charged vote in the House on a measure seeking to repeal the newly enacted health care reform legislation. That law, which President Obama signed last March, has no gay-specific provisions but does prohibit insurance companies from denying or dropping coverage to a person with a particular disease, such as HIV or breast cancer. It also prohibits insurance companies from setting a cap on how much coverage they will provide over the lifetime of a patient. The legislation also includes $8.5 billion for community health centers.

Before the shocking news of Saturday’s shooting, partisan rancor had been escalating, particularly in the House. Republicans who took control of the House January 5 were squaring for knock down-drag out fights over health care reform, debt ceilings, and even a re-examination of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT).

U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who took over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had vowed to hold hearings to scrutinize the Pentagon’s November 30 report about implementing repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay people. But he has made no further statement since November on such hearings. President Obama signed the DADT repeal measure last month and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a press conference January 6 that he hopes preparations for implementing repeal can be done “within a matter of a very few weeks.” Those preparations, said Gates, include finalizing changes in regulations, policies, and benefits, then preparing training materials and conducting the training.

“We will do that as expeditiously as we can,” said Gates.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was at the press conference with Gates, added, “We certainly are focused on this and we don’t dawdle.”

On Capitol Hill this week, lawmakers are focused on the shooting of a Democratic member of the House from a heavily Republican Arizona district on Saturday, January 8. The shooting prompted U.S. Capitol Police on Sunday to urge all members of the House and their staffs to take “reasonable and prudent precautions” to ensure their own security.

Openly gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) declined, through a spokesman, to talk about specifics of threats to his security but at an interview in Boston in 2009, after he had assumed the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee, he was accompanied by a bodyguard.

“It would not be a good idea to discuss anything about security,” Frank told a Boston public radio station, WBUR, Monday, “but what I can say is this—I can’t believe that any of us are going to allow this to result in a reduction of availability to the people we represent.”

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), in a telephone news conference with home state reporters Sunday, acknowledged having received threats “during my course in public office” but declined to provide any specifics. She and other members of Congress pointed to the increased hostility displayed at routine town meetings during the debate over health care reform in 2009 as a time when many felt escalating concerns for potential violence.

Baldwin said she was glad that both Republican and Democratic leaders have “noted that this tragedy calls upon us all to re-examine our words, to re-examine how we disagree in public debate and set a new course of civility and appropriate rhetoric.”

“We have to, in a democracy,” said Baldwin, “be careful with our words.”

Baldwin praised Speaker Boehner for setting the proper “tone” in reaction to the shooting. Baldwin said Boehner told members of Congress in a telephone call Sunday that it is “time we have to reconsider the very incendiary rhetoric that has been occurring and that we must stand together…as a Congress.”

Boehner also released a statement saying, “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Such acts of violence have no place in our society.”

Baldwin said she hopes the reaction to the tragedy will enable members of Congress to “come together next week … and say how, moving forward, can we do better, can we bring renewed civility to consequential debates and create a new environment in which people can differ without endangering people’s security and safety.”

That was this week.

Last week, the Human Rights Campaign put a number on just how hostile the new U.S. House of Representatives is going to be for the LGBT community. The number is 53.

There will be 53 more anti-LGBT members of the House as part of the 112th Congress. That is, of 435 members of the House, 225 are “anti-gay,” said HRC in a report released January 5. In the Senate, the number of anti-gay members increased by five to 40 out of 100.

“Of course, anti-LGBT forces will to try to turn back the clock at every opportunity,” said the report.

One of those news members is Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. As a state senator, Huelskamp authored a bill to ban gay couples from obtaining marriage licenses, hired an anti-gay radio talk show host as his new chief of staff.

Concern about prospects for legislation hostile to LGBT civil rights began soon after the mid-term elections in November, when Republicans won control of the House. That collective shift of partisan power also put representatives hostile to equal rights for LGBT people into the chairmanships of the various House committees. Right away, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced he would hold hearings on the Pentagon’s report concerning Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) repeal.

So far, no legislation hostile to the LGBT community specifically has been introduced. At least one bill likely to receive the support of the LGBT community has been introduced. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) introduced a bill January 5 (HR 83) which seeks to establish voluntary guidelines for use by state and local governmental entities to prevent and address occurrences of bullying, including bullying based on the victim’s sexual orientation, and to provide funding to states for programs that do the same. The language does not include gender identity.

Meanwhile, many gay legal and political organizations this week issued statements acknowledging how important Rep. Giffords is to the LGBT community.

HRC President Joe Solmonese called Giffords “a champion for LGBT equality and a principled leader for Arizona.”

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she has been “an effective leader and a steady friend to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”

Giffords is one of 91 members of the LGBT Congressional Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Frank and Baldwin. She holds the seat once held by openly gay Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who retired a few years after he came out.

Police have yet to nail down a motive for the shooting and there has been no indication she was targeted for her pro-gay voting record. In a search of the suspect’s home, police uncovered evidence that he had targeted and planned the “assassination” of Giffords specifically. Comments he placed in text on a video he posted on YouTube suggested he had some hostility toward “the current government.”

“You don’t have to accept the federalist laws,” wrote Loughner. “I can’t trust the current government…. The government is implying [sic] mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.”

Those comments and the fact that Loughner targeted a member of Congress who narrowly won a tough re-election campaign against a Tea Party Republican candidate, has prompted widespread debate over whether Loughner acted out of mental instability or political extremism.

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