More than 800 members of Congress, their spouses and their chiefs of staff have participated in a rare bipartisan conference call after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in her home state of Arizona Saturday.
Giffords is in critical condition and six people are dead after a gunman opened fire in a Tucson parking lot where the congresswoman was meeting with her constituents. The incident has left lawmakers shaken and vowing to work together.
The House of Representatives has suspended all scheduled business for the coming week, including a contentious vote planned for Wednesday to repeal President Barack Obama's signature domestic accomplishment - health care reform. The House returns to session on Tuesday and members will pay tribute on the House floor to all those killed and injured in the Arizona shooting rampage. On Wednesday, members will bring forward a resolution to honor the victims of the shooting and a security briefing will be held for all members of Congress.
After the conference call, Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut briefed reporters, comparing the atmosphere on Capitol Hill to the feelings lawmakers had after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "When something like this happens, not unlike what happened in the spontaneous breaking out of people singing ‘God Bless America’ on the steps of the Capitol after September 11th, it is spontaneous, it is sincere, I think people get it," he said.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said lawmakers need to rally around their wounded colleague, the families of the fallen, the people of Arizona's 8th District, and to rally around each other. Larson and other Democrats praised Boehner and the Republican leadership for their sensitivity in postponing all votes in the House for the coming week.
During the conference call, members and their spouses and staffs were briefed on Gifford's condition. She is in critical condition in the intensive care unit and her doctors are cautiously optimistic. They were also briefed on security procedures and the new agenda for the coming week. Representative Larson said there was also an outpouring of admiration and affection for Congresswoman Giffords. "Gabrielle Giffords is a pretty extraordinary member. And when someone engenders that kind of feeling amongst members, I think there is just such a feeling of cooperation," he said.
Giffords is a moderate Democrat from a conservative Arizona district, and is well-liked in Congress by members of both parties. She is a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and of the health care reform law passed by Democrats last year. During the heated debate on health care, the front door of her Tucson office was shattered in an act of vandalism.
Prosecutors have filed two first-degree murder counts, two attempted murder counts and one count of attempting to kill a member of Congress against 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner. Loughner had posted rambling Internet videos accusing the U.S. government of mind control and brain-washing. Authorities say no clear motive has been established.
Despite all the calls for more civil discourse and unity from lawmakers, some Democrats pointed to anti-government language from the Tea Party movement and to incendiary rhetoric from conservative leaders such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as a possible underlying contributor to some violent acts.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois mentioned Palin's combative rallying cry, "Don't retreat; reload," and the crosshairs image she used to signal congressional districts where she wanted Republicans to win. He said "these sorts of things invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response."
Republicans rejected suggestions that their side of the aisle has contributed to a more dangerous political environment.
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee noted Sunday that the alleged gunman posted on the Internet that he read Marxist and Nazi literature, and said that is not the profile of a typical Tea Party member. Tea Party supporters advocate low taxes and a very limited role for government. Some Republican bloggers and pundits have accused Democrats of trying to reap political gain from the shooting.
President Obama issued a statement Sunday calling on Americans across the country to observe a national moment of silence at 11 a.m. eastern time (1600 UTC) Monday to honor the innocent victims of the senseless tragedy in Arizona, including those still fighting for their lives. He said it "will be a time for Americans to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart."