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House members brave new world in meetings with constituents

When Rep. Shelley Berkley decided to hold a "Congress on Your Corner" event here Friday, she planned to prove that fear hadn't changed the way Congress works. She wound up proving the opposite.

Berkley's event in a small office building off the Strip featured a folding table, two flags and 60 constituents -- plus at least 10 police officers, watching from throughout the building.

"I hope this isn't the wave of the future," the Democrat said upon spotting the officers as she arrived. She hadn't asked for that level of protection: The Las Vegas police decided she needed it. "This should not be the way we have to do business in this country."

Last week, it was.

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in Tucson, Ariz., a week earlier left the powerful on Capitol Hill grappling with a very human fear: Just how risky, they wonder, is a life spent shaking hands with strangers?

Members of Congress spent the week reassuring family members and making emergency plans with their staffs. Whose job is it to call 911? Who knows cardiopulmonary resuscitation? They read old hate mail, replayed memories of threats. Should we have reported that guy?

A few members talked about arming themselves. One suggested encasing the House's public galleries in plexiglass.

By the end of the week, a handful started putting on their smiles and going out in public again. Politics is built in part on illusions, but this was a hard one: Do something that was previously utterly routine -- and pretend it still was.

"I thought it was very important to send a signal to my constituents and let them know we're open for business," said Berkley, a congresswoman as loud and pugnacious as her city.

In addition to the police, a man stood behind Berkley as she met small groups of residents. It was her son Sam, 25, who had decided she needed him, too.

Historians count five lawmakers who have been killed by strangers. They include a Republican congressman shot down in Arkansas in 1868, a House member from Texas who died in a riot in 1905, and two senators, Huey Long , D-La., and Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., who were assassinated. The most recent was Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., who was killed in 1978 by members of the Jonestown cult in Guyana.

Congress members say they knew -- at least in theory -- that their job might put them in danger.

To lower their risk, they used little tricks: Hold town hall meetings in churches or schools, where people are socialized to behave. When someone goes on a wild-eyed rant, start your answer by thanking them. It lowers their temperature.

This week, however, some realized that they might not have understood the dangers after all.

On Thursday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., sat down with her staff to talk about the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson. She got a shock: One aide opened a drawer and pulled out a folder of letters, received in recent years, that they never had shown to the congresswoman.

One said, "You will soon be assassinated." Another said, "They know where you and your family members live." A third said, "It is time for the patriot movement to take things into their hands."

Members said their families began calling in the hours after the attack, pressing them: Could this happen to you?

"I don't tell them when I receive threats. I don't want them to worry," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. But the conversation was unavoidable: In addition to the Giffords shooting, news reports told about a 2009 case in which a man threatened to attack Lofgren on the street.

On Capitol Hill, the week passed in a foggy suspension. Some talked of gun control: Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed in a shooting rampage in 1993, said she plans to introduce a bill that would ban high-capacity gun magazines.

Only at the end of the week did lawmakers begin to talk about other political issues, as Republicans planned for a vote on repealing the new health care law.

And, as the days passed, a few lawmakers ventured out again for public events. In fact, members said they heard constituents worrying about them.

"They're thanking me and telling me to keep safe," Lofgren said. "That's new."