Norma J. Torres still keeps a gas mask and a bulletproof vest in her office, both vestiges of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
The California Democrat was among a small group who sheltered in the House gallery as a gunshot rang out and police lines were breached. The gas mask was pulled from under her seat in the gallery. The bulletproof vest she bought later to wear during the inauguration of Joe Biden, just weeks after the mob breached the Capitol in an attempt to block the transition of presidential power.
Two years later, she can’t bring herself to part with either. The memories are still too fresh and her faith in her colleagues across the aisle too tenuous.
“Today I went up to the group that is challenging Kevin [McCarthy], and I said, ‘Should I be bringing my bulletproof vest to the floor?’” Torres said Thursday outside the House chamber, between the eighth and ninth ballots for speaker of the House.
Republicans won back control of the House in November but have foundered in their attempts to elect a leader in the opening days of the new Congress. A group of roughly 20 GOP hard-liners — some of whom have voiced support for the violent Jan. 6 mob — have successfully blocked hopeful Kevin McCarthy so far and forced multiple speaker ballots for the first time in a century.
This year, the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack falls on a Friday. Lawmakers were supposed to be leaving Washington by then, having wrapped up the first days of the new Congress and headed into the weekend. Instead, the speaker race has dragged on, and members are still in town after all. That means the Capitol will be fuller than expected Friday, as a handful of events mark the occasion.
Democrats will hold a ceremony in the morning honoring officers who died or were injured on Jan. 6, and the nonprofit group Public Citizen is organizing a rally in Union Square to call for accountability and prevent similar attacks in the future.
President Biden plans to hold a ceremony at which he’ll honor police, election workers and state and local officials who showed courage during the attack or in the aftermath.
For those who were there that day, like Michael Fanone, the former D.C. police officer who was beaten and shocked with a stun gun, there is a real threat that history could repeat itself with Republicans in power. The speaker’s race was an example of “absolute chaos,” he said.
“This is just the beginning. This type of chaos will happen every single day in the House as some of the most extreme politicians our country has ever seen hold our democracy hostage,” Fanone said Thursday at a rally outside the Capitol. “Our elected leaders allowed this to happen, and yet, this week, people who encouraged and even attended the insurrection are now taking their places as leaders in the new House majority.”
Rep.-elect Derrick Van Orden, a Wisconsin Republican, has publicly acknowledged he marched toward the Capitol on Jan. 6, though he’s denied participating in the violent mob. Andrew Clyde of Georgia compared the incident to a “normal tourist visit.” And Lauren Boebert of Colorado tweeted on the morning of the attack, “This is 1776.”
Boebert rejected the notion of Republican-led chaos as she spoke on the floor Thursday afternoon, even as she held firm in her opposition to McCarthy. She is in the group, made up mostly of conservative House Freedom Caucus members, that has repeatedly blocked him from claiming the speaker’s gavel.
“This isn’t chaos,” Boebert said. “This is a constitutional republic at work. I’m a mom of four boys — I know what chaos and dysfunction looks like. This is actually a really beautiful thing to be here with all of my colleagues debating.”
Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
Torres described an ominous feeling ahead of the second anniversary of the event with Republicans newly in power. The GOP has so far failed to elect a leader, but the party immediately implemented changes at the Capitol that made Torres feel less safe, like more fully reopening to visitors and tours and removing the metal detectors that had stood outside the House chamber since the attack.
“It feels different,” Torres said. “I stepped off the floor the other day and I saw a big group of people. They were just tourists, but all of a sudden I was back in that moment. … I think there are triggers that are always going to be there.”
Michael Macagnone and Megan Mineiro contributed to this report.