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Sunday, January 09, 2011

After Arizona attack, Texans in Congress point to boiling political anger

By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, January 9, 2011

WASHINGTON – Texas lawmakers expressed shock that one of their colleagues was shot Saturday at a public event in Arizona, and several worried that boiling anger toward elected officials was to blame for the tragedy.

The motive of the man suspected of being Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' shooter was still unclear Saturday, but authorities believed they had identified some of his rambling, anti-government writings on the Internet. Several Texas members of Congress said they had worried that widespread anger with Washington could spill into violence.

The U.S. Capitol Police told lawmakers Saturday to "take reasonable and prudent precautions" in their districts. While the party leaders in Congress have personal security and police officers are omnipresent in the Capitol, rank-and-file lawmakers don't travel with security.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said he recently began advising local law enforcement about upcoming public events.

"I was concerned about this happening for a while," said McCaul, a senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. "I think you will see a little more ramped-up security for members at these events."

Giffords, 40, worked closely with Texas lawmakers, including McCaul, on space, energy and border-security legislation. She won a tough re-election fight in the fall, and the front door of her Tucson office was smashed in after she voted for the health care bill last year. The polarizing debate over that legislation prompted angry protesters to confront lawmakers at several town hall events across the country.

In August 2009, a protester who showed up to meet Giffords at a supermarket event similar to Saturday's was removed by the police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell to the floor.

"I think she was clearly under quite a bit of stress, and I think you could see emotionally it was impacting her," McCaul said.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said he witnessed anger over the last year and a half that "I have never seen in my whole political career."

Cuellar, who has served in public office for two decades, said the shooting should prompt lawmakers and activists to reduce their rhetoric.

"Does that tone concern me? Yes it does," he said. "Because you could have somebody willing to take words and turn them into action, into a violent situation, like we possibly saw today."

McCaul said he'd learned from official briefings that the man said to be Giffords' shooter was probably a "delusional, lone wolf type."

"It's really hard to put him in any specific category in terms of his motivation," McCaul said. "The FBI is conducting a very intense investigation trying to get to that."

McCaul and several other Texans worked closely with Giffords last year when she led a House subcommittee that oversaw NASA and its budget. Giffords, whose husband is an astronaut, worked on a major piece of legislation that overhauled NASA's mission.

"I had no better bipartisan friend, and I am looking forward to her coming back to the Hill," said Rep. Pete Olson of Sugar Land, the top Republican on the space subcommittee. "She wanted to be bipartisan. She believed that our side of the aisle had something to offer – just like her side."

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall , said he had attended space shuttle launchings with Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly . Hall, the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, called Giffords a "very smart and intelligent" lawmaker who "held her ground" during legislative battles over NASA and pressed forward with legislation to increase the use of solar power.

"They got so many nuts out there, I don't know what will happen next," Hall said. "It tells us all we have to be a little more careful."

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