WASHINGTON – There was an eerie silence in the House chamber when the gavel fell to open Wednesday morning’s session.
This was supposed to be the time for “morning-hour” speeches, those short partisan jabs and one-liners. But not a single lawmaker was on the floor, the brown-leather benches and speakers’ tables all empty. Without even the invocation or the pledge, the speaker pro tempore immediately declared the chamber in recess.
The partisan guns had been silenced by a real one. Not three hours earlier, a would-be assassin critically wounded Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, and injured four others on a baseball field before falling to police bullets. In an instant, members of Congress were transformed from Democrats and Republicans into Americans – and humans. Reminded suddenly of their own mortality, they remembered, too, that their opponents are people.
Democrats at their baseball practice – the two teams were preparing separately Wednesday morning for Thursday night’s Congressional Baseball Game – gathered in their dugout upon hearing the news and bowed their heads in prayer for their Republican colleagues.
When the House reconvened at noon, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., looked stunned as he walked onto the House floor, still wearing his cap, jersey, baseball pants and muddy cleats. Spotting Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, manager of the Democrats’ team, he called out “Hey, Coach!” – and the two embraced.
“We are united in our anguish,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told the House, now nearly full. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” Democrats and Republicans alike rose in the first of four standing ovations for the speaker.
The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, rose to say that “I pray for all of you,” and “I pray for Donald Trump, that his presidency will be successful.” The gunman, she said, caused “an injury in the family.”
Ryan’s words echoed those of his predecessor, John Boehner, six years ago when then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” Back then, members of Congress paid tribute to Giffords for eight hours on the House floor, and both sides pledged to temper their rhetoric as they waited for Giffords to return.
She never returned to Congress, but the sniping did, and, with the rise of President Trump, it got dramatically worse. Undoubtedly, business-as-usual will return this time, too. Even on Wednesday, there were hints of a breakdown in the comity. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., taking a distinctly different tack from Ryan, proclaimed repeatedly before the cameras that the shooter was “targeting Republicans.” Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., took a swipe at the “no holds barred” firearm laws in Virginia, where the shooting occurred, and he reminded reporters that responsible rhetoric “starts at the top.”
True, but the shooting is a reminder to those of us who have warned of Trump’s incitements to violence that there are deranged people of all ideologies who can be inflamed by angry rhetoric. Sen. Bernie Sanders, for whose presidential campaign the shooter had volunteered, rightly went to the Senate floor to denounce violence.
For the moment, there was at least a tacit recognition that the toxic tone had to change. Trump’s statement on the shooting was downright presidential. GOP lawmakers called off the day’s votes and most hearings, including one on legislation that would relax long-standing controls on gun silencers.
Instead, lawmakers gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center during the late morning for a members-only briefing. It was a solemn processional: Only a few stopped to talk to some of the 200 journalists lining the hallway, the rest silently filing in to learn more about the attempt to kill their colleagues.
The lawmakers moved next to the House floor, where Father Pat Conroy, the chaplain, prayed that “Republicans and Democrats be mindful of the rare companionship they share.”
Ryan, in perhaps his best speech, continued the homily: “I ask each of you to join me,” he said, “to show the country, to show the world that we are one house, the people’s house, united in our humanity.”
Pelosi followed him with confirmation that the baseball game would be played Thursday, as scheduled. “We’ll root for our team,” she said, but “we will use this occasion as one that brings us together.”
There is something magical about the national pastime uniting our leaders – and something tragic that it takes the bullets of a madman to remind them that their opponents aren’t their enemies.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.