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House Speaker Ryan calls for unity, but shooting reveals stark political divide

BY   June 14, 2017 at 5:09 PM EDT
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan walks through National Statuary Hall after making a statement at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RTS173N1

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan walks through National Statuary Hall after making a statement at the Capitol Building on June 14, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

WASHINGTON — In an emotional speech on the House floor Wednesday, hours after a gunman opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team, Speaker Paul Ryan called for a political detente.

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Ryan said. “For all the noise and all the fury, we are one family,” he said, and added, “we are being tested right now.”

Ryan’s speech received a standing ovation from House Republicans and Democrats — a rare event in a chamber where both parties remain deeply divided over everything from health care and immigration to government spending and gun control.

But the surface-level bipartisanship belied political tensions over the shooting that emerged within hours of the attack, which injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, two Capitol Hill police officers, a congressional aide and a lobbyist. The lone gunman, James T. Hodgkinson, died later Wednesday of gunshot wounds sustained during the attack, officials said.

If Ryan is right that the shooting represented a test, the earliest signs suggested that members of both parties will have difficulty setting their long-term differences aside.

That became clear as House lawmakers gathered at the Capitol for a security briefing roughly four hours after the shooting took place at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

The atmosphere was unusually tense, as lawmakers who had witnessed the attack described a chaotic shootout between the gunman and members of Scalise’s security detail.

Some House members who participated in the practice arrived on Capitol Hill still wearing their red baseball uniforms, without having had time to change.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), catcher on the Republican Congressional Baseball Team, speaks with the media at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RTS172QX

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), catcher on the Republican Congressional Baseball Team, speaks with the media at the Capitol after the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

The shootout “went on and on and on,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who was on the field and said he hid on the ground in the third-base dugout when the shooting started. “My back was turned to” the gunman, Fleischmann said. “I could have been his first victim.”

“I’m shaken up,” Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who left the field shortly before the shooting started, told reporters. “My colleagues were targeted today by somebody who wanted to kill them.”

Duncan said the shooter approached him in the parking lot as he was preparing to drive to the Capitol, and asked who the players on the field were. Duncan said he told Hodgkinson that they were members of Congress.

“He asked me if this team was the Republican or Democrat team,” Duncan said. “I responded that it was the Republican team, and he proceeded to shoot Republicans. Take that for what it’s worth.”

READ MORE: Eyewitness video captures congressional baseball shooting

At first other lawmakers declined to say if they also believed the shooting had been politically motivated. But as the closed-door security briefing started, news reports began circulating that Hodgkinson’s Facebook page was filled with posts criticizing President Donald Trump, and praising progressive Democratic policies.

By the time House members emerged from the private security meeting around noon, evidence of Hodgkinson’s allegiance to Senator Bernie Sanders — which apparently included volunteering on his 2016 presidential campaign — was bouncing across social media, and the topic of politics and last year’s election was impossible to ignore.

“The presidential campaign we just went through has coarsened and made more angry the [political] debate,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. There are “people who may take that tone as some sort of justification to act out.”

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said the meeting had produced a “clear consensus that the tonality of our public discourse has deteriorated, and that it’s incumbent upon the leadership of the country to try to restore a sense of dignity.”

U.S. Capitol Police keep watch on Capitol Hill following a shooting in nearby Alexandria, in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein - RTS172IQ

U.S. Capitol Police keep watch on Capitol Hill following the shooting in Alexandria on June 14, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Mr. Trump offered a measured response to the shooting in an appearance at the White House Wednesday. “We are stronger when we are unified, and when we work together for the common good,” he said.

Yet as the day wore on, neither Republicans nor Democrats offered up new ideas on bridging the political divide, and the parties’ differences on gun control in particular became clearer than ever.

On the left, Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for tougher gun laws in response to the shooting. On the right, Republicans signaled they were not interested in being drawn into a discussion about gun violence.

“Now is not the time to talk policy.” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said. “I don’t see this as a gun control issue. The default to that would be a missed opportunity.”

Instead, the shooting sparked a debate among House members about their own security, and the safety of their staffs. One lawmaker, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., said he planned to carry a gun at public events in the future.

Veteran lawmakers said the shooting might bring the parties together, at least temporarily. “People come together” in moments of crisis, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. But “it may not be lasting.”

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