“Lockdown during the shutdown—what’s the next ‘down’ to happen?” an Orrin Hatch staffer joked after the Hill lockdown was lifted. “Break-it-down?”
The staffer, along with several other Senate staffers who had not been furloughed, hung out on a third-floor balcony of the Hart Senate Building, in viewing distance of the wrecked black Infiniti sedan that police had chased from the White House to the Capitol, where it crashed into a barricade and the driver was shot and killed by officers.
Dave Caldwell, a University of Michigan student who’d come to the Hart Building with other young activists to lobby for the LGBT organization Human Rights Campaign, said he was the last of his group to go through security Thursday afternoon when he heard three or four loud pops go off behind him. “We didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “The lobby scattered.” According to Marissa McCabe, another member of the group, a policeman shouted, “Everybody out, everybody out!” They turned toward the door just as the officer reversed his instructions: “Everybody in, everybody in! Get down! Get down!”
The activists did so, barging into the first office they saw, which happened to belong to Republican Senator Pat Roberts, of Kansas. Roberts had heard four shots from just outside his window. He and his staff walked out of the office to investigate and were promptly ushered back in, where they found themselves joined by the agitated group of gay-rights advocates.
“We got ‘em back there, gave them water and coffee, and the senator calmed them down,” Roberts’ press secretary explained later.
By the activists’ account, the hour was a bit more dramatic. “The senator thought someone was banging on the building,” Jessie Sheffield said. She insisted they needed “a safer room,” away from the glass windows surrounding the office, so they ran into a place where lobbyists ordinarily jockey for a seat: the inner chamber of the senator’s office.
For the next hour Roberts soothed his fifteen unexpected charges. He took a ceremonial knife off a wall plaque and brandished it, as if to ward off the shooter. “You know, because he’s a Marine,” said Caldwell. “Anyway, it comforted me.”
“He was like, ‘This is nothing,’” said McCabe. “Another lady who retires in six weeks was telling us she went through anthrax and everything. She cried, and so the senator took her phone and talked to her family for her.” The activists took photos sitting in the senator’s chair, with Roberts standing benevolently behind them. “He was like the father figure,” McCabe said. “If he was worried, he didn’t show it.”
The senator told tales about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and the HRC reps even gave a little elevator pitch to Roberts and his staffers when the senator asked why they were on the Hill. Roberts's staff listened politely, took down names and numbers.
“I’m pretty sure we’re all Democrats and he’s a Republican. But it was, like, the coolest bipartisan thing,” Caldwell said. “In the midst of a government shutdown, there was some bipartisan cooperation.”
But that cooperation isn't likely to last: The Human Rights Campaign's most recent congressional scorecard awarded him exactly 0 percent.