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Gabrielle Giffords shooting: Are members of Congress safe back home?

Congress is a near-fortress, but the Gabrielle Giffords shooting raises questions about security for members of Congress in their home districts.

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On Capitol Hill, the new concerns could force House Republicans either to defend or repeal one of the first moves they made after taking power: a measure to cut spending for member and leadership offices by 5 percent for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

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The move was designed to shrink the size and scope of government, and it had wide bipartisan support, passing 408 to 13. But the mood has shifted since the shooting in Tucson, and some Democrats say those funds are now needed to boost security in district offices.

House Republican leaders oppose a repeal. “All members are concerned about security and are listening to the advice of the FBI, Sergeant at arms, Capitol Police,” says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner. “We are focused on using the resources we have now.”

But nine-term Rep. Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois was the first to float the idea of moving one of his two district offices, located in a neighborhood recently dubbed “the most violent police beat in Chicago.” The move, proposed after the Jan. 8 attacks, was prompted by concerns over the safety of his district staff, as well as that of constituents visiting the office, he said.

But Mr. Rush, like other lawmakers, is reluctant to appear to signal that he is backing away from voters in a troubled part of the district. The decision is not yet final, he clarified in a Jan. 12 statement: “Any reports to the contrary are inaccurate.”

Citing the prospect of moving district offices to safer ground, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois says he opted to stay in a poor neighborhood, but will need funding to support staff and security upgrades. “We are bunkered down and hunkered down in a post-9/11 Congress. We have created a fortress up here. But we have not treated our district staffs the same way we treat staff up here,” he said, speaking after a security meeting at the Capitol. “As a result, they are vulnerable, and something needs to be done about it.”

‘It could have been us’

For Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) of Colorado, the issue after the Jan. 8 shootings is whether to scale back his signature “Government in the Grocery” events. He has held as many as 80 events in every part of his district at the edge of Denver since his election in 2006. Congressman Perlmutter prefers meeting with constituents where they are, rather than at a venue convenient to politicians. He calls these encounters with constituents “the fabric of our democracy.”

But the attack in Tucson now requires renegotiating terms with grocery stores, who may be reluctant to have patrons face any kind of new security. There is also concern for staff, who work with Perlmutter to help meet constituent needs on site.

“This has hit very close to home for all of us,” says Leslie Oliver, a spokesman for Perlmutter, based in the district office. “We hold those very same meetings [as Giffords and her staff]. It could have been us.”

The district office has “Government in the Grocery” events on the calendar for Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, but it’s not clear “how our program is going to change,” she adds.

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