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Arizona tragedy gives Congress pause

Speaker John Boehner discusses shooting Sunday. | AP

Speaker John Boehner discusses the shooting Sunday. | AP

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Updated: May 6, 2011 1:14PM

WASHINGTON — The shooting rampage in Arizona seems to have created a reset moment for confrontational politics, as lawmakers reflect on the repercussions of the overheated rhetoric traded on the airwaves and on the campaign trail.

Members of Congress from both parties called Sunday for civility over belligerence as the House temporarily shelved the contentious debate over repealing the health care law and lawmakers paused to contemplate the tragedy.

Critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the apparent target of a lone shooter, emerged as a potent and cautionary symbol of the current political climate. Still, there was no clear motivation for the attack, and some warned against making provocative politicians and commentators the culprits in the assault.

President Obama on Sunday called for a national moment of silence to be observed at 10 a.m. Chicago time today. “It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart,” he said.

House Speaker John Boehner told lawmakers in a conference call Sunday to “pull together as an institution.”

“What is critical is that we stand together at this dark time as one body,” he said. “We need to rally around our wounded colleague, the families of the fallen, and the people of Arizona’s 8th District. And, frankly, we need to rally around each other.”

The attack on Giffords has given members of Congress a sense of unusual common purpose. Leaders from both parties worked together Sunday to offer members assurances that they were reviewing security measures.

But while Sunday’s calls for unity and civility were bipartisan, the discussion had a partisan subtext as Democrats pointed to anti-government language from the tea party movement and to rabble-rousing imagery and rhetoric from conservative figures such as Sarah Palin.

Sen. Dick Durbin on Sunday mentioned Palin’s combative rallying cry, “Don’t retreat; reload,” and the crosshairs she used to signal congressional districts where she wanted Republicans to win.

“These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response,” Durbin said.

Republicans were especially sensitive to suggestions that their side of the political spectrum was contributing to a more poisonous political environment. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that the suspect in the Tucson rampage was connected to Internet postings that included Marxist and Nazi literature.

“That’s not the profile of a typical tea party member, if that’s the inference that’s being made,” he said. AP

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