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Recent Attacks On The Capitol Have Reignited Debate Over Its Security

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last week's deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol came as members of Congress were at home in their districts. And when they return next week, it will be to a renewed debate over security. There's the pressure from security officials who want to make the seat of government safer from growing threats. And then, there are calls to allow public access to the building. And all of this while nearby residents and members themselves are complaining that a permanent Capitol fencing system will turn this symbol of democracy into a fortress. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says a fencing system for the Capitol was not top of mind when he served in Congress for more than 30 years. But that's changed now.

HARRY REID: Fencing may be necessary.

GRISALES: The former Nevada lawmaker said that was not the case when he served from the 1980s to the mid-2010s or when he worked as a Capitol Police officer in the 1960s.

REID: That was never, ever considered when I was the leader or when I served on the Capitol Police force - never considered.

GRISALES: It's part of a long-running dispute that's embroiled security officials, lawmakers and the surrounding community for decades. Just ask Terry Gainer, a former Capitol Police chief who also served as Reid's Senate Sergeant at Arms.

TERRY GAINER: I was forbidden to use the word fence.

GRISALES: Gainer's predecessor as the Senate's top protocol officer, Bill Pickle, says the idea has bedeviled Congress for decades.

BILL PICKLE: And it's been front and center for at least 40 years is this idea of building a fence around the Capitol.

GRISALES: Gainer and Pickle say they're part of a long line of security officials who even today call for the change to mirror fencing seen at the White House or the Pentagon. Gainer said the plan was revisited when he recently served on a Capitol task force led by retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore following the insurrection, and they proposed a retractable mobile fence instead. Gainer said that was a solution, but not the best one.

GAINER: And I thought to myself, well, here we go again. If we're only going to make recommendations that the members want, then we're not giving the best recommendation.

GRISALES: D.C. Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is among a wave of members who support the Honore plan, but remain opposed to permanent fencing. She's co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill with support from House and Senate members to stop it.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I think most people outside of the District of Columbia forget that the Capitol was located by the framers in a neighborhood.

GRISALES: Residents view the Capitol complex as a park where they can congregate to sled in the winter or walk around in the spring and the summer. Norton and other security officials do agree that an incident last week involving a suspect who rammed his vehicle into two Capitol Police officers, leaving one dead and another injured, unfortunately was an example of a security system working. But Norton and others argue a physical barrier that endures does not.

NORTON: If you have to fence the Congress in, then you've fenced in our democracy, and you've shown the world that you can't take care of your own Capitol. So how in the world are you going to be able to take care of the country itself?

GRISALES: The major tourist destination has also been closed off to the general public during the pandemic, and top leaders will have to reassess how to open it back up. Democratic Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego argues the Capitol must draw visitors again, as it once did when he was a student.

RUBEN GALLEGO: What I don't want is to punish the public to try to keep me safe. This is their Capitol. It's not my Capitol. I want students to be coming here like I did in my eighth-grade year and walk around and wander around and see this place as an open and welcoming place.

GRISALES: Because the Capitol has become such a target, Congress is taking up a separate funding bill just focused on security costs. That debate will dictate if the Capitol will become a meeting place for neighbors and a tourism draw as an enduring symbol of democracy surrounded by a fence. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "HIDDEN WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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