Lawmakers consider new curbs on incendiary speech

Shocked and saddened lawmakers grappled on Monday with the weekend shooting of one of their own, with some suggesting that new laws and regulations are needed to curb incendiary speech.

The aftermath of Saturday’s attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) brought a rare moment of unity on Capitol Hill, but it also escalated a contentious debate over violent imagery in the nation’s political discourse.

ADVERTISEMENT
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) was having a beer and eating pizza at a New Jersey bar when he heard the news via the television. Soon thereafter, he was contacted by his staff and was on the phone with other House members. 

“It’s somewhat overwhelming. We are all flabbergasted, stunned,” he said.

While noting the obvious differences between the two events, Pascrell said Saturday reminds him of 9/11. 

“I couldn’t believe I was really seeing this. This can’t be real,” he told The Hill in an interview Monday. 

An emotional Pascrell added, “All of us at the bar prayed.” 

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he had just finished giving a speech when he learned of the assassination attempt.

“As soon as I stepped offstage, they told me,” Kingston said, noting he was with his family at the time. “There wasn’t much that we could do but pray.”

Several leading House Democrats blamed the inflammatory rhetoric for contributing to the Tucson massacre, while Republicans denounced criticism of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) following the tragedy. 

One lawmaker, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), has said he would introduce a bill to make it a crime to threaten or incite violence against a federal official.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) suggested the Federal Communications Commission was “not working anymore,” adding she would look at ways to better police language on the airwaves. A brick was thrown through a window of Slaughter’s district office last year.

Slaughter cited Palin’s use of gun sights to target Democrats in last year’s election and the assertion by Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) that “Second Amendment remedies” might be needed to stop the Democratic agenda.

“There’s nothing else to surmise from that than that people should be shot,” Slaughter told reporters on a conference call. “I mean, it really is terrible.

“What I’d like to see is if we could all get together on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, and really talk about what we can do to cool down the country,” Slaughter said. “Part of that has to be what they’re hearing over the airwaves.”

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, also referenced Angle’s “Second Amendment” statement from the campaign. “He saw a Second Amendment remedy and that’s what occurred here and there is no way not to make that connection,” Clyburn told the Charleston Post and Courier, referring to the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner.

The Saturday shooting immediately put the legislative agenda of the new Republican majority on hold. GOP leaders postponed a vote on the healthcare repeal bill scheduled for Wednesday, along with all other legislation not related to the tragedy. Congressional leaders and staff gathered on the Capitol steps Monday for a moment of silence, and the House will approve a resolution honoring Giffords and the other victims on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said they expected the House to return to the repeal vote next week, but no schedule has been announced. “Further decisions on the legislative schedule will be announced at a later date, but this institution has an obligation to move forward in doing the business of the people at the appropriate time,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Democrats are already warning against a return to the divisive rhetoric of last year’s healthcare debate.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) urged Republicans to change the name of the repeal bill, which is titled the “Repeal the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act.” “I’m not suggesting that the name of that one piece of legislation somehow led to the horror of this weekend — but is it really necessary to put the word ‘killing’ in the title of a major piece of legislation?” Pingree wrote on The Huffington Post website.

The GOP leadership declined an official comment, but a Republican aide said it “sounds like Congresswoman Pingree is trying to politicize the tragedy, and that’s a shame.”

Republicans pushed pack against the suggestion that their rhetoric had in any way contributed to the Tucson tragedy, and they pointed out that Democrats were just as guilty of relying on violent metaphors and imagery.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, blamed the media for pointing fingers at Palin and the Tea Party over their use of “targets” on Democrats.

“This attack on Sarah Palin is outrageous,” he said in an interview. “Give me a break. I’ve made my living in politics, and the word ‘targeting’ is not a new word in the political lexicon. That’s just something that is a normal term in how you are going to prioritize your political efforts.”

The Oklahoma Republican added, “I’ve never heard the Tea Party preaching violence; I’ve heard them preaching participation.”

Kingston said the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, “got the ball rolling” by blaming the shooting on vitriolic speech. He pointed out that President Obama has used gun language in his speeches: “How [does] Sarah Palin get criticism and not President Obama for saying, ‘They’ll come after us with knives, we’ll come after them with guns?’ ”

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released a statement Monday defending a campaign ad last year in his which he is shown shooting a bullet through the Democratic cap-and-trade bill. 

“The act of a deranged madman who commits a horrific act should not and cannot be confused with a metaphor about a piece of legislation,” Manchin said. “I have never targeted an individual, and I never would.”


Molly K. Hooper, Julian Pecquet, Jordan Fabian and Bob Cusack contributed to this report.