01:35 - Source: CNN
See what security looks like outside US Capitol
Washington CNN  — 

Lawmakers in both parties are expressing frustration over the extended fortification of Capitol Hill as tension between the need to address security failures of January 6 and restoring some to semblance of normalcy threatens to kick off a contentious debate over how to protect the Capitol complex.

The thousands of National Guard troops still in Washington and the razor-wire fence surrounding the Capitol are both physical reminders of how security concerns continue to linger more than two months after the January 6 attack.

Members of Congress have sought clarity from US Capitol Police and the Pentagon as to why the deployment of Guard troops was extended this week through May but have not been given a clear explanation, according to a source familiar with the outreach.

The current understanding, the source told CNN, is that US Capitol Police does not have the staffing to provide security post-January 6 even with a reduced threat, so the National Guard is bridging the gap. It also remains unclear where the National Guard troops would come from, the source added, noting that the Pentagon has deferred to the National Guard, which is in contact with governors about the issue.

The resistance to the extended security situation comes as lawmakers consider new recommendations for how to permanently safeguard the Capitol. This week a task force appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed a host of security changes, including hiring hundreds of new Capitol Police officers, installing a retractable fence at the Capitol and even conducting background checks on all congressional staff.

The long-term security posture at the Capitol itself is the first of a host of politically thorny issues lawmakers will have to tackle, and if their current sentiment is any indication, it will not be an easy debate.

“I think we’re way overreacting to the current need,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday. “I’m extremely uncomfortable with the fact that my constituents can’t come to the Capitol. With all this razor wire around the complex reminds me of my last visit to Kabul. This is the capital of the United States of America. … It looks terrible to have the beacon of our democracy surrounded by razor wire and National Guard troops.”

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, echoed a similar sentiment Tuesday.

“It has to change … what we have now, that’s just unacceptable to me, currently 10-foot fences with razor wire on top of that, Durbin said. “It’s just ghastly, it’s an embarrassment. If there’s a better way to protect us, I want to see it. I want to work to get it. We can’t assume any longer that the good old days are going to return when it comes to security on Capitol Hill. The insurrection mob on January 6 proved that.”

The recommendations from the task force, led by retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, were the first formal effort to address the security failures, and many of them are likely to be taken up in a security supplemental funding bill from the House Appropriations Committee, according to Democratic aides.

Additional recommendations could be addressed by the House Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police Board, one senior aide said, while some of the proposals requiring more systemic changes might need additional legislation.

But it’s still unclear whether Democrats will get buy-in from Republicans for making changes recommended by the task force. Some of the proposals, like hiring additional officers, are likely to attract bipartisan support, but recommendations like conducting background checks could face opposition from Republicans who have chafed at Democratic charges of an “insider threat” to the Capitol. Republicans have also already started questioning the potential price tag of a supplemental security package.

GOP critical of task force chief

Commanding General District of Columbia National Guard Major General William J. Walker testifies on March 3, 2021 in Washington, DC.

While some Republicans have praised Honore’s recommendations, several have attacked his appointment by Pelosi over comments made before his appointment about the January 6 attack.

“It is a partisan one-sided report by a person that had already shown a bias, so I think we should discount it appropriately,” Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, told CNN Wednesday. Issa said that Honore’s task force called for “a lot of requests for money, not a really comprehensive plan at all.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Honore of having a partisan bias, saying it “raises the unacceptable possibility that Speaker Pelosi desired a certain result: turning the Capitol into a fortress.”

Several Republicans praised the report. GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska said he liked how it addressed manpower and physical security improvements needed.

“I think his recommendations seemed reasonable and I could tell that he was putting mission over partisanship in my mind. And so I think he tried to do a good faith effort,” Bacon said.

Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said many of Honore’s recommendations were “spot on.” But he questioned the suggestion of an “internal threat” inside the Capitol to justify some of the security decisions that Pelosi has made, such as installing magnetometers outside the House chamber doors.

“They still have not relayed to me what an internal threat is within the Capitol. And I think it’s taking precious resources away from our brave Capitol Police officers who need a break. They need to be able to go to their families” Davis said.

No end date yet for Guard deployment

Members of the National Guard gather outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

National Guard troops still roam the halls of the Capitol, and it’s not clear whether this week’s latest two-month extension will be the last.

On Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby again declined to speculate about the duration of the National Guard deployment past the new May deadline but told reporters that the Secretary of Defense is confident in his decision to approve the USCP extension request.

“We’re comfortable that we’re going to be able to source this on May 23, and we’ll see where we are in a month or so. Whatever it looks like going forward, I certainly wouldn’t speculate one way or the other,” Kirby said. “It is about capacity, which has a lot to do with numbers and augmenting the Capitol Police right now, in this new environment we’re all living in post-January 6.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed frustration with the extended Guard deployment and the lockdown of the Capitol, long a symbol of open government.

“I don’t think there needs to be a continuing massive presence, because I do think it sends the wrong message, and one of the best things we did on the Sixth was go back and do our work,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “And I think the sooner we can return to normal, wide-eyed, the better. … But if there is real intelligence – that there’s real threats out there – we need to overreact instead of under react.”

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview there needed to be a balance struck between the desire for an open campus and preventing another attack.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that we have that balance. I don’t like seeing the wall around the Capitol that we have now, the barbed wire we have on top of that, that’s not what we should have here,” Peters said. “The Capitol is the ‘People’s House’ and having the Capitol accessible to Americans is essential in my mind.”

‘Partisan fight in everything’

The U.S. Capitol, which saw boosted security, after officials warned of an attack plot by extremists, two months after supporters of former president Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building.

At the Capitol, lingering tensions remain over the events of January 6, which some Democrats have suggested some of their GOP colleagues were complicit in either directly or indirectly. Several Democrats have expressed skepticism Republicans will help to address the security problems with additional funding.

“We can’t count on them for anything at all,” said one House Democrat. “Somebody has to be the grown up in the room, make tough choices.”

At the same time, some Republicans have accused Democrats of using January 6 as justification for refusing to work with their colleagues across the aisle over their vote not to certify the election results, creating gridlock on a host of issues where bipartisan cooperation would typically be expected.

“There’s a partisan fight in everything here right now, everything,” Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, said when asked if the response to Honore’s recommendations could be bipartisan. “You actively have members of the Democrat Party … saying they’re literally not working – not cosponsoring, not doing anything – with anybody that didn’t vote the way they wanted to on January 6.”

Republicans have questioned the need to keep up the security posture at the Capitol when there hasn’t been a threat like the one posed on January 6. Davis said the House’s decision to leave early due to intelligence concerns about a plot on the Capitol on March 4 wasn’t warranted, noting the Senate continued to hold votes.

“I think what happened on January 6 is not likely to recur again,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.

Costly solutions

 The U.S. Capitol dome is seen beyond a security fence on January 17, 2021.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former intelligence and Pentagon official, said that Honore told lawmakers threats against them have only accelerated this year. Honore’s report recommended enhanced security for all 900 congressional district offices.

“People are worried about their security when they’re here in Congress, particularly after the National Guard leaves,” Slotkin told CNN. “I don’t think it’s abated in anyway, and certainly in my own experience – we just had an indictment against someone who has been threatening my team – so it hasn’t gone down for those of us who are members of Congress, certainly not.”

Honore’s report did not include a price tag, but House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro said this week she expected a “substantial investment” in security. Draft recommendations, first reported by CNN, indicated that the price tag for simply hiring hundreds of additional USCP officers could approach costs of $100 million, let alone the costs of installing new retractable fencing and other measures.

Plus, Congress will need to address the costs of the thousands of National Guard troops at the Capitol and the fencing that currently surrounds it.

House Appropriations GOP spokeswoman Sarah Flaim said Republicans were “reviewing the report to determine the best path forward to secure the Capitol and protect Members and staff while also maintaining public access.”

Honore’s report recommended that the Capitol use a mobile and retractable fencing system as a more permanent security solution. In the report, Honore touched on the debate over security and openness that’s likely to drive Congress’ decision-making on security in the coming months.

Retractable fencing, the task force wrote, “could enable an open campus while giving security forces better options to protect the complex and its Members should a threat develop.”

CNN’s Geneva Sands, Manu Raju, Kristin Wilson and Jessica Dean contributed to this report.