WASHINGTON — The mood was somber Thursday as Republican lawmakers filed into their first GOP conference meeting since a gunman opened fire on their GOP baseball practice in Virginia Wednesday morning.
There was no ignoring the fact that Majority Whip Steve Scalise — their energetic leader who was shot Wednesday and remained in critical condition — wasn’t there with them.
The conference meeting — which typically gives members a chance to talk about policy– transformed into a support group of sorts for members. Lawmakers signed poster board-sized cards for those who’d been shot and were recovering including the two Capitol Police officers who’d been injured in the line of duty. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, who is the only practicing psychologist in Congress, got up to help counsel Republicans on how they could cope with the aftermath and trauma of what had happened.
“Tim Murphy gave us some great clinical advice in kind of what to expect to go through, the various stages,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican. “The key will be to not be so hard-headed to not see what’s happening and try to take advantage of the help .”
Rep. Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, delivered the opening prayer. His former staffer, now lobbyist, Matt Mika was among those shot Wednesday.
“It took on a little more significance than normal,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican.
Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina wore his “Scalise tie,” which the Whip had given to all the members of the Whip team last year. The tie had little Capitols and flags on it. The back had Scalise’s signature.
Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry , who probably works closer with Scalise than anyone in Congress, gave a moving speech on his colleague that included both touching and funny stories about the whip.
But members also had to deal with the practical implications of what had occurred. The conference also included a briefing from the Sergeant of Arms on security at the Capitol and beyond.
Members said that the hardest part of Thursday was that many were still replaying events in their minds.
“This guy had the ability to inflict a lot of harm and had the heroism of the Capitol Police not been there, who knows,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina who had left the practice before the shooting began.
At conference, some members who were present on the field stood up to tell their colleagues what had happened.
“I told them what it was like to be in there, be in that dugout with my teammates trying to stay alive and having my young man who works for me in my office who was shot, dive into the dugout into my arms. We were holding each other,” said Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican from Texas.
The leadership also asked members to give the Scalise family their space. Members were told at this point, the best thing they could do would be to pray for their colleague and his family.
“They said just let the family have their peace,” said Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican.
Brad Wenstrup, who was on the field Wednesday and had given Scalise medical attention after the shooting, said that Scalise might be the kind of person who would try to “entertain” visitors.
“I’ve seen this as a doc. Steve’s the type of guy that if you went to visit him, he’d try to entertain you. That’s not where his energy needs to be,” Wenstrup said. “He needs to be there with the family, with the doctor and just let him get better.”