WASINGTON — Rep. Lou Barletta still sounded shaken hours after a gunman shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others Wednesday as a group of Republican lawmakers practiced for a charity baseball game.
Barletta wasn’t at the Alexandria, Virginia, baseball field for the practice before the Republican congressional team was set to play the Democratic team Thursday in a more-than-century-old tradition.
An avid baseball fan who once tried out for the Cincinnati Reds, Barletta had played on the GOP team every year since he got to Congress in 2011. But he said he can’t see the ball as well as when he was younger, “so I decided to sit this year out.”
Instead, he was home getting ready for work when he learned about the shooting that left his friend, Scalise, of Louisiana, in critical condition, and wounded a congressional staffer and a lobbyist.
Two Capitol Police officers also were injured during a shootout in which the suspected gunman, James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, Illinois, was killed.
“I could have been there,” said Barletta, who represents Pennsylvania's 11th district. “It’s something I loved to do.”
Like other stunned members of Congress, Barletta saw the shooting as a reflection of how deep the political divisions and how heated and personal the verbal attacks have become.
“Things have gotten out of hand," Barletta said. "Something has happened in the country and it’s not good.”
Members of Congress said they believe that they’re at greater risk of harm. But the shooting is also causing some self-reflection about toning down their own rhetoric.
In a year when House Democrats and Republicans have been at war over repealing the Affordable Care Act and other issues, the shooting brought a rare show of unity. Both sides attended a briefing on the shooting, to hear about security precautions they should be taking, Rep. Evan Jenkins, a West Virginia Republican, told reporters.
Behind closed doors, members of both parties prayed together and held hands.
There was talk of “unity and tone, and the importance of us to come together on what is said and how it is said,” Jenkins said. The officials spoke of the tenor of a political debate “that many times crosses the line,” he said, and "how important it is for each of us to play a role in setting the right tone by our own actions.”
“There were no cameras or reporters around. This wasn’t a display for the public,” Jenkins said.
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, echoed Jenkins' words at a Wednesday press conference.
“When the leadership of Congress becomes more civil toward each other, maybe the public could be more civil to each other, too,” Doyle said.
In a prepared statement, Rep. Mike Kelly, a Pittsburgh Republican, said: "I believe it’s time for all Americans to regain perspective about what our democracy should entail. Fueling our politics with the unadulterated hatred we’ve seen in recent months only serves to dehumanize our leaders, denigrate our First Amendment and endanger our fellow citizens.
"It’s time to start seeing the best in each other, not only assuming the worst.”
Barletta said calls and emails to his office have gotten more personal and heated.
“Just recently, I had a threat from somebody who said people were going to die because of a vote I took," Barletta said. "He had my address, and he said he was going to make sure I die, too.
“You become numb to it because you don’t take it as a serious thing that’s going to happen. But then something like this happens.”
Barletta said his worried wife called after news of the shooting broke.
“It’s so easy to attack Congress and members of Congress," he said. "But everybody has families, and it’s not easy on them to have you not be home. But now they have to worry if you’re going to get shot.”
Barletta recalled former Arizona Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords being severely injured in a 2011 shooting during a public meeting in a Safeway parking lot.
Jenkins said Wednesday's incident could have been much worse.
Jenkins, who sleeps in his Capitol Hill office, was in a bathroom shaving next to House Speaker Paul Ryan when he learned from Ryan what had occurred.
“Bottom line is, this gunman came to kill," Jenkins said. "Apparently, a number of members of the team were in the dugout and the gunman was advancing in their direction.”
Jenkins credited Capitol Police, who were only providing security because Scalise, the House’s third-highest ranking member, was present.
Had the officers not been around, “these folks would have been sitting ducks. The results would have been horrific,” Jenkins said.
House members said they would not stop meeting with constituents in Washington, D.C., or in their home districts.
“I’m not going to let the fear of another tragedy stand in the way of my meeting with Hoosiers,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, a Republican from Indiana, told reporters.
But, Jenkins said, “It does cause us to adjust our own personal behavior, and (to focus on) being more aware of your surroundings, and what's happening around you."