Border wall or Capitol fence? D.C. divided on $1.9B spending bill.

The House on Thursday narrowly approved $1.9 billion to fortify the Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Some Republicans would prefer to allocate those funds toward building a border wall. The bill now moves to a divided Senate.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Members of the National Guard open a gate in the razor wire topped perimeter fence around the Capitol at sunrise in Washington, March 8, 2021. Threats to members of Congress have more than doubled this year, according to the U.S. Capitol Police.

The House on Thursday narrowly approved $1.9 billion to fortify the Capitol after the Jan. 6 insurrection, as Democrats pushed past Republican opposition to try to harden the complex with retractable fencing and a quick-response force following the most violent domestic attack on Congress in history.

The bill’s 213-212 passage came a day after the House approved the formation of an independent commission to investigate the deadly mob siege by former President Donald Trump’s supporters, who battled police to storm the building in a failed attempt to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s election.

The two measures now face an uncertain outcome in the evenly divided Senate as most Republicans have objected to both. Tensions are running high at the Capitol, with Democrats growing exasperated with Republicans who refuse to acknowledge the severity of the insurrection because of what appears to be their devotion to Mr. Trump – and fears of crossing him.

“We have a major political party in the country that’s ignoring it – we’re trying to solve a problem, they clearly don’t want to sit down and talk about it,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, chairman of an appropriations subcommittee handling legislative branch security.

At the same time, the idea of bolstered security at the Capitol saddened many lawmakers who said they see no other choice because of the ongoing threats on Congress. Several leading liberal Democrats opposed the security money over concerns about policing, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders worked the floor during votes to ensure passage.

Together, the package of bills stemming from the domestic assault by Trump supporters on the Capitol reminded some lawmakers of the changes that emerged from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then, a landmark commission investigated the attack’s root causes and authorities hardened the security apparatus across the federal government.

Thursday’s vote capped two days of emotionally wrenching debate as the political divide, particularly in the House, has widened in the months since the January assault.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro recalled her own experience being trapped in the House gallery that day as the attackers tried to break in, calling her husband to tell him she was OK after Capitol Police told her to duck on the floor.

“This bill is not about politics, it’s not about settling scores,” Ms. DeLauro said. “It’s about ensuring that every person who comes into the Capitol is safe and is protected.”

Republicans argued that the spending bill is too expensive and no fencing is needed. Many of them said lawmakers should be spending money on border security, not Capitol security.

Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas, contended that Democrats would rather spend money on a wall “around this building in D.C.” than they would on finishing a border wall advocated by Mr. Trump.

Already, National Guard troops have been protecting the building for months and public access is severely limited. Though razor-wire-topped fencing that stood as a stark reminder of the siege has been removed, an extended perimeter fence remains in place, cutting off access to the lush grounds popular with the public.

The Democrats who opposed the security legislation were some of the most liberal in the House. Some have expressed the view that police treat people of color unfairly. Democratic Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota voted against it.

Ms. Omar said she had “not been convinced of the importance of the money.”

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan voted “present,” effectively saving the measure from going down to defeat.

The chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, said the lawmakers “wanted to make sure that there were accountability measures” on the security funds. She voted for the bill.

Senate Democrats will not be able to pass either bill on their own in the evenly split 50-50 Senate and could have trouble persuading enough Republicans to vote with them after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would oppose the inquiry. Ten GOP senators would need to join Democrats to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to advance legislation. Changes could be made to win over their support.

Months in the making, the emergency spending package incorporates the recommendations from an outside panel of experts to beef up security after the mob attack.

The bill includes money for new fencing – either retractable or “pop in,” according to Democrats – that would protect the grounds. The legislation bars money from being used for permanent above-ground fencing, reflecting the wishes of most members of Congress that the area should be open to the public.

Other changes would fortify windows and doors, install new security vestibules and cameras, and protect members with increased security at home and in Washington, as threats against them have doubled in the last year. There is also money to protect federal judges who are prosecuting the rioters and have received threats, and to repay the Capitol Police and other federal agencies for their efforts on Jan. 6.

Some lawmakers have objected to the proposal for the National Guard to maintain a “quick response force” nearby after it took hours for Guard troops to arrive Jan. 6 as attackers were brutally beating officers.

Leading Republicans on the armed services committees in the House and Senate oppose relying on the troops for the work of protecting the Capitol.

The National Guard Association of the United States said in a statement that the Guard should only be used for law enforcement as a “last resort.”

Democrats said they, too, are uneasy with many of the military-like measures, but say they have little choice but to protect the building. The delays in sending the Guard to the Capitol have been blamed in part for the failure to contain the violence. Five people died, including a Trump supporter shot and killed by police as she tried to climb through a broken window to access the House chamber, and a police officer who fought off the mob and died later.

“We’ve never had a quick response for us here – you know, we’ve never had an insurrection, either,” Mr. Ryan said. “So thinking has to evolve in order to try to solve some of these problems.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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