As the Capitol was overtaken by a violent mob Wednesday, quick-thinking floor staff grabbed the wooden Electoral College mahogany boxes from the well of the Senate chamber and took them out, along with the crush of evacuating senators.
The insurrection, and attack on democracy itself by the pro-Trump rioters, halted the debate over certification of the Electoral College votes of Arizona, which favored President-elect Joe Biden, in both chambers shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday. But the pluck of the staff and the resilience of lawmakers enabled both chambers to resume consideration after the Capitol was secured, with the Senate gaveling back in shortly after 8 p.m. and the House following soon after.
The House and Senate had retreated to their respective chambers to consider the Arizona objection when the Capitol itself was overrun by the mob.
While the Senate session was underway, reporter Paul Kane from The Washington Post ran out of the Senate chamber, shouting, “Pence just left, Pence left the chamber!” That was one of the first indications that the continuity of government, in the form of Vice President Mike Pence’s protective detail moving him to safety, was under threat.
When the Capitol was officially locked down, reporters huddled in the balcony of the Senate chamber overlooking lawmakers. It became clear that while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top senators were present, President Pro Tempore Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who is third in line to be president after the vice president and speaker, was not in the chamber.
Across the Capitol, a similarly astounding scene was playing out in the House. Speaking from the rostrum, a Capitol Police officer told lawmakers that the chamber was in lockdown due to a breach of the building, as of shortly before 2:30 p.m.
He urged members not to leave the building. The House came back into session briefly, but at 2:40 p.m., with the violent protesters in Statuary Hall and all over the building, lawmakers were being evacuated.
This was the point in the day when there were shots fired just outside the House chamber, and House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., was heard telling colleagues to use gas masks because there was teargas deployed in the hallways.
As senators were being rushed through hallways, tunnels and stairwells to a more secure location, Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt and top Democrat Amy Klobuchar kept finding themselves within a pace or two of each other among the crush of people.
“We could have a Rules Committee meeting right now,” another senator quipped, easing the tense and frantic mood of the evacuation.
Lawmakers, members of the news media and support personnel were held in locations across the congressional campus while law enforcement worked to clear the Capitol.
It was the first armed incursion of the Capitol since 1998, when Capitol Police Detective John M. Gibson and Officer Jacob J. Chestnut were shot and killed by a lone gunman. On Wednesday, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police, while three other deaths were traced to medical emergencies around the complex.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who has opposed the effort to overturn the presidential election, was locked down in his office on Capitol Hill.
“The objectors over the last two days have told me there is no problem with just having a debate. … We won’t actually overturn our entire system of representative government, so nothing bad will happen, there will be no cost to this effort,” Gallagher said in a video message. “This is the cost. This is the cost of countenancing an effort by Congress to overturn the election, and telling thousands of people there is a legitimate shot of overturning the election today.”
Both the House and Senate chambers were ultimately evacuated, with reported shots fired and Capitol Police in armed standoffs with rioters attempting to seize control of the floors.
But lawmakers were ultimately undeterred from completing the work of certifying the Electoral College victory of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed colleagues around the dinner hour that they should not leave the Capitol and that they intended to finish the task Wednesday night.
“We always knew this responsibility would take us into the night. The night may still be long but we are hopeful for a shorter agenda, but our purpose will be accomplished,” the California Democrat wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. “We also knew that we would be a part of history in a positive way, today, despite ill-founded objections to the Electoral College vote. We now will be part of history, as such a shameful picture of our country was put out to the world, instigated at the highest level.
“Today, January 6 — the Feast of Epiphany — let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal,” wrote Pelosi, a devout Catholic.
As the Senate reconvened Wednesday evening, Pence gave a forceful statement from the presiding officer’s chair.
“Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house. And as we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, for even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this Capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
“So may God bless the lost, the injured and the heroes forged on this day. May God bless all who serve here and those who protect this place. And may God bless the United States of America. Let’s get back to work,” he said.
After he was done, McConnell followed up.
“The United States Senate will not be intimidated. We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs or threats,” the Kentucky Republican said. “We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation. We are back at our posts. We will discharge our duty under the Constitution and for our nation,” he added, concluding with, “This failed insurrection underscores how crucial the task before us is for our republic.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III was even more direct in his language, as he spoke to reporters about three hours before the Senate resumed debate. “Whatever it takes, these thugs are not running us off,” the West Virginia Democrat said.
Like many of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Klobuchar stressed that they and the nation itself would be resilient.
“Today many have put themselves on the line to protect our Republic. Despite the violent and lawless actions of many of those at the Capitol today, we will not be deterred from finishing the job we started,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a statement. “While this was a dark day in our nation’s history, we will stand united in the face of those who seek to divide and sow chaos. Anarchy will not prevail. Democracy will prevail.”
Lawmakers all thanked Capitol Police for their work to keep them safe, but that didn’t stop some from questioning how the unprecedented breach of the Capitol occurred in the first place.
“Capitol Police have done a good job in protecting us here, although I think we have a lot of questions about the last four hours and what’s been done to protect the Capitol complex,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar said.
The California Democrat said he and other members were safely evacuated from the House chamber, but Capitol Police sent mixed messages about where they were supposed to go.
“We were down in the basement, navigated the tunnels and there was a little confusion as to where they wanted us to go,” Aguilar said. “Some of us were told, a handful of us went to the cafeteria, which was locked down, and they let us in. But then someone else came back and said they were mistaken. So it was just a bad game of telephone, some Capitol Police saying one thing and some saying another.”
Some lawmakers also thought about the many support staff who make the Capitol tick, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and during Wednesday’s violent chaos.
“The United States Capitol is not just populated by members of Congress. In fact, we are a small minority of the thousands of staffers, reporters, administrative staff, maintenance and food service workers, police officers, and others who come to work every day to serve the American people,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement. “I pray for each and every one of them and their families that they will return home safely tonight, and I pray for our country as we work to heal the deep wound on display today.”