Capitol Hill was awash with emotion Thursday as lawmakers anxiously waited for updates about their wounded colleague Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip shot Wednesday during a congressional baseball practice.
Lawmakers tried to stay optimistic, arguing that the affable Louisiana Republican congressman is a fighter and will pull through this dark hour. But often times their fear for his well-being broke through when they least expected it.
While exiting the House chamber Thursday afternoon, for instance, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), talked calmly and collectedly about showing “solidarity” with the shooting victims at the congressional baseball game Thursday night. But when asked if Scalise would be on her mind during the event, her professional demeanor crumbled and her face crunched into a pained look.
“It’s…” she trailed off as she started to cry. “I can’t speak about it. I’m so torn up.”
Scalise underwent his third surgery Thursday and remained in critical condition at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. The bullet had fractured bones and torn through internal organs, according to a hospital statement late Wednesday night. And Scalise, who suffered severe blood loss, had multiple units of blood transfusions.
According to sources familiar with Scalise’s condition, the third surgery was routine for gunshot victims with doctors checking the work they had performed the night before. But that didn’t keep members on the Hill from worrying about him all Thursday.
Lawmakers who had read the hospitals’ statement and seen the looks on leadership’s faces grappled with the severity of Scalise’s condition. Some Republicans even speculating that Scalise could be out commission for some time.
“He’s in for a long rehab… He has a long way to go,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the first baseman for the team who witnessed the shooting. He later added: “Steve physically is a very tough guy. Mentally, he’s tough, so that will help his recovery.”
President Donald Trump, who visited Scalise on Wednesday night, said midday Thursday that the lawmaker was “in some trouble” but a “great fighter.”
“It’s been much more difficult than people even thought at the time. It’s been — he’s in some trouble, but he is a great fighter and he is going to be OK, we hope,” he announced at a White House event. He added that, “I have a feeling that Steve has made a great sacrifice, but there could be some unity being brought to our country. Let’s hope so.”
Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team called an emergency conference Thursday morning to give lawmakers an update. Several sources in the room said leadership told them Scalise was likely in surgery at that very moment. But beyond that and a brief discussion of the hospital statement released Wednesday night, leadership did not give additional details on his condition or prognosis.
Members tried to keep the conference light-hearted and hopeful, even as some members who witnessed the horrific shooting stood and told their stories. Lawmakers signed jumbo cards for Scalise and the other victims.
Some took note, however, of a visibly shaken Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who visited Scalise in the hospital Wednesday. McHenry, who is close with Scalise, said his friend was strong. But he asked members not to visit Scalise in the hospital for now and respect his space and privacy.
Leaders also told members not to comment on Scalise’s condition, hoping to tamp down any rumors that might start churning as Scalise remains in the hospital. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife had visited Scalise Thursday morning, but did not provide additional information about his recovery.
Throughout the day, Hill staffers and members kept Scalise in their thoughts. In a Facebook post, Scalise’s chief of staff Brett Horton recounted an exchange with his boss from the day before the shooting: Scalise had a few minutes suddenly open in his schedule. But when Horton tried to book that time with a new appointment, Scalise said no. He wanted to simply chat and catch up with his staffer.
“‘Come here and sit with me,’ he motioned to these two chairs he has that sit in front of a window looking directly down the National Mall,” Horton wrote of the exchange. “I’m sure I rolled my eyes, thinking of the lost productivity. But, I sat with him, my boss and my friend. And for the next fifteen minutes, we caught up on life.”
He added: “That’s not unique to me. He’s like that with everyone.”
After she regained her composure, a tearful Wagner also wanted to talk about Scalise’s kindness. She said she first met him was when he flew to Missouri to take over her campaign during her first run for Congress. Her father had died suddenly just before the election. And Scalise, who didn’t know her, “flew in and took things over while I mourned.”
“I’d never met him in my life,” she said. “He was just helping a future colleague. He’s a good friend.”
Meanwhile, thoughts and prayers poured into the Hill in droves as member geared up to play the congressional baseball game Thursday evening — an annual, friendly bipartisan affair that will become a tribute to their colleague.
“All over the country, we have people praying for Steve, for Steve’s wife and kids, for the others injured and for the doctors and nurses caring for our friends,” said Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kans.), the Republican team’s relief pitcher. “Steve is a great friend and father and a mentor to many of us.”
Multiple people were wounded in Wednesday morning’s shooting, including a congressional staffer, a lobbyist and two Capitol Hill Police officers. The gunman, identified as 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson of Illinois, died after being shot at the scene.
On the Senate floor earlier Thursday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged prayer for Scalise and others injured in the shooting — adding that it has been an “immensely difficult 24 hours for all the victims.”
“The events of yesterday were devastating, and we know it will take time to heal. But for now, the members of the congressional baseball team have made the decision to go forward with tonight’s game, which will be played for charity,” McConnell said. “I know we’ll be thinking about each of them as they take the field tonight.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) added shortly after McConnell’s remarks that the four top congressional leaders — McConnell, Schumer, Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — will attend the baseball game together as a show of unity.
“We would all be wise to reflect on the importance of civility in our nation’s politics this morning,” Schumer said. “We disagree vehemently at times here in Congress, and folks out in the country do, too. But the level of nastiness, vitriol and hate that has seeped into our politics must be excised.”
Seung Min Kim and Diamond Naga Siu contributed to this report.
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