As for almost 16 months, longer than ever in the country’s history, the United States Capitol is closed to most public visitors.
WASHINGTON (AP) – As for almost 16 months, longer than ever in the country’s history, the United States Capitol is closed to most public visitors.
The double blow of the coronavirus pandemic which closed the doors of the Capitol in the spring of 2020 and the murderous insurgency of supporters of then-President Donald Trump on January 6 left the icon of American democracy inaccessible to all except a privileged few.
As the rest of the nation emerges from this July 4th party of the barbecue and fireworks pandemic that President Joe Biden is promoting from the White House, the People’s House faces new threats of violence, to virus variants and at a more difficult time.
“What is heartbreaking is that the Capitol has always been our symbol of democracy – during civil war, world wars, conflicts of all kinds,” said Jane L. Campbell, President and CEO of United States Capitol. Society.
Congressional leaders are working intensely to try to resume public visits to the Capitol in one form or another, but any reopening will likely come with new health and safety protocols for the millions of annual visitors, 535 lawmakers and thousands of people. ’employees and crews who work under the dome and its surrounding campus.
In the House, lawmakers operated under a proxy voting system that allowed them to avoid traveling to Washington, although most now vote in person. The smaller Senate is mainly back to business in person. Both chambers conduct certain commission operations remotely.
The security fence surrounding the Capitol is about to fall, a move towards normality. A $ 1.9 billion emergency spending program to bolster the security of the complex has been approved by the House, but the Senate is opposed to the increase in the money.
Public and private conversations about how to safely reopen are evolving as dangerous strains of coronavirus emerge and federal law enforcement officials issue new warnings about the potential for violence from extreme groups righteous and those who believe in conspiracies.
White nationalists and other far-right groups loyal to Trump stormed the Capitol on January 6 and were among those trying to undo Biden’s victory. Authorities have been following discussions online about groups of people who may be returning to Washington amid an unfounded and unfounded conspiracy theory that Trump would be reinstated in August, according to two officials familiar with the matter who spoke under cover. of anonymity to discuss sensitive law enforcement. information.
“I want people to be proud that they can come to Capitol Hill and talk about its rich history,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and now chairman of a new panel. restricted. who will investigate the riot.
“We should never think about visiting the Capitol and wondering if it is safe,” he said.
Lawmakers have struggled over the past year with their own mixed emotions over closed doors, fearing to return to Capitol Hill when a section of their colleagues, mostly Republicans, refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Two elected officials died of complications from COVID-19.
While many lawmakers say they are saddened by the black metal security fences, and all they stand for, some also see it as a necessary deterrent after fleeing pro-Trump rioters.
But the quiet hallways now create their own unease, representing all that gets lost. The children of a lawmaker played in the empty rotunda on a recent evening, recalling the absence of school groups, tourists and other visitors who typically flock in the summer season to see democracy in action or petition their government.
Congress provides the most direct link between Americans and their federal government, the representative democracy envisioned by the founders. Some 2.5 million people visited the Capitol each year and 12 million in the surrounding gardens, according to a House assistant. Public tours of White House tours also remain closed.
“I miss the visitors,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Who said she escorted some people to the House’s gallery last week to find it was closed to spectators who could watch. part of the day. legislative session.
“I always find it inspiring that so many people want to come here,” she said.
The Capitol has already experienced crises. The public galleries were closed for about a month during the 1918 pandemic. The grounds were closed for a few months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The public was also unable to visit in 1968 during the unrest. after the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Security has been reconsidered at various times, notably after shootings against lawmakers and bombings against the building.
But it’s not since the end of the War of 1812, when the British invaded in 1814, that the seat of American democracy has seen an attack like this year.
Trump supporters fought police, breached barricades and stormed theaters, threatening to harm former Vice President Mike Pence and other leaders and lawmakers as crowds tried to block Congress to certify state election results for Biden.
A total of five people have died as a result of the events, including a Trump supporter shot dead by police, three people with medical emergencies and a police officer who later died. Two policemen later committed suicide. Hundreds of people have been arrested.
Illinois Representative Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., A letter signed by some 135 other Republican lawmakers calling for a full reopening plan.
“There is no reason the Capitol should be closed,” Davis said in an interview.
He said those involved in the siege should be prosecuted, but it is time for the House to end proxy voting and resume normal activities. “We have to get back to doing what people sent us here to do,” he said.
A senior Democratic official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the tours had not resumed due to pandemic and security reasons. House and Senate sergeants-at-arms are continually reviewing the situation in consultation with the Attending Physician’s Office, the aide said.
The Capitol complex is open to official business visitors with limits on the number allowed. Most are welcome to log in and provide general information.
“The Capitol is now closed for the longest period in its 228-year history,” Campbell said of the historical society.
“What I would say to all of us is that it is important for Congress to come together around security,” she said. “People should be able to work together around this. “
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.
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