Congressional security officials reversed course late Tuesday and abandoned a plan to reconstruct fencing around the Capitol — one that had been approved by Capitol Police and other security leaders just hours earlier.
The plan for fencing was approved in anticipation of potential unrest following the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. Shortly after the jury returned a guilty verdict on all charges, the Capitol Police revealed they had scrapped the renewed fencing plan.
“USCP is no longer planning to go ahead with reinstalling some of the outer perimeter fencing,” a spokeperson said in a brief statement that offered no explanation for the change of plans. The rebuilt fence also appeared intended to precede President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress on April 28.
The seesawing security plans came as Congress once again closely scrutinizes its security planning, with many lawmakers still on edge in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
Under the now-abandoned plan, portions of an outer perimeter fence — removed just weeks ago — would have been re-installed. The Senate sergeant-at-arms announced the rebuilding plan in an email to lawmakers and aides shortly before the Capitol Police walked back that very same preparation.
The 180-degree turn on outer fence planning also followed frustration from at least one senior lawmaker with responsibilities to oversee Capitol security.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees Capitol security matters, had expressed frustration that he hadn’t been consulted on the new fencing plan. The Capitol Police Board, which includes the Senate and House sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol, is empowered to make security decisions for the Capitol complex without congressional approval.
“Well apparently the Capitol Police and the police Board have no interest in sharing any of these discussions with the oversight committee,” Blunt said. “I’m certainly not aware of the particular threat to the Capitol, nor do I think that every time there’s some incident somewhere in the country that could possibly create a public response that we should fence off the United States Capitol.”
“I think it’s a mistake and maybe more importantly, as the top Republican on the Rules Committee, no one has stepped forward to explain to me why it would be necessary,” he added.
A new wave of anxiety on the Hill about possible protests this week, which seemed to abate soon after the Chauvin verdict, coincides with plans to reopen the Capitol to limited groups of visitors on Wednesday. It’s the first time that outside visitors on “official business” will be allowed into the House side of the Capitol since the coronavirus pandemic forced significant restrictions. Additional visitors will be allowed into the rest of House buildings next Wednesday, the day of Biden’s speech.
The House sergeant-at-arms is expected to formally announce the new visitation protocol in a letter to congressional offices on Tuesday.
The task of securing the Capitol also came up Monday night in a House Democratic leadership meeting where lawmakers discussed potential protests this week, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
Some draconian security measures implemented after Jan. 6 have started to wind down around the Capitol complex. The outer perimeter fence was removed just a few weeks ago, amid bipartisan concern that the heavy fortifications had gnarled traffic in Washington, D.C. and created a fortress-like atmosphere in what has traditionally been an open campus. The National Guard also has scaled back its presence in the Capitol complex in recent weeks, though some troops still remain.
But just days after the outer fence came down, an attacker rammed a vehicle into a Capitol Police checkpoint, killing one officer, William Evans, and injuring another. That deadly incident, as well as ongoing reviews of Capitol security in the aftermath of the insurrection, have added an air of uncertainty to safety plans for lawmakers, staff and visitors.