Washington – Minnesota's senior member of Congress spent part of last week trying to find cots, so that armed National Guardsmen sleeping inside the U.S. Capitol would not have to lie on the cold hard floor.
That is a chore U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has never had — and a sign of how surreal Washington has suddenly become.
McCollum has seen multiple presidents inaugurated during her two decades in office, and each was a celebration in its own way.
But on Wednesday, she will watch President-elect Joe Biden take his oath in a city under siege.
A massive security operation is engulfing the capital, closing hundreds of streets, major bridges and a dozen of the city's busiest subway stops. Soon, many more National Guard members will be patrolling Washington than there are American troops deployed in Afghanistan. The deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump has cast an ominous shadow over a ceremony that had been scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I feel like I am in the eye of a hurricane," McCollum said.
As inauguration week dawns, a heavy metal fence 8 feet tall surrounds the Capitol building. Inside the barrier, National Guardsmen in combat gear stand sentry with automatic weapons.
On Friday, the National Guard reported that more than 7,000 guard members are on duty here, and their ranks may swell in the next few days to 20,000.
This inaugural already was going to be different because of the health risks: no large cheering crowds, no parade featuring the new president, and no balls or parties.
But mob rioting at the Capitol, fueled by Trump's false claims that the election had been stolen from him, and the ongoing threat of more violence have led to a nearly unprecedented lockdown of the capital.
Most of Minnesota's congressional delegation will attend the inaugural. That includes Democrats and Republicans, with Reps. Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber and Michelle Fischbach all confirming plans to be there.
"I will be there to witness the peaceful transfer of power," Stauber said. "To supporters not only of President Trump but President-elect Biden, we are a nation that needs healing right now."
But Washington is on edge.
"The Capitol is a workplace," said Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat "What we saw was a violent workplace attack."
By the end of the week, concrete barriers, huge city trucks and police cars had sealed the length of the National Mall.
The barriers stretched into downtown D.C., forcing business closures and leaving streets deserted. Detours required drivers trying to cross from south to north to travel miles out of their way.
Signs on the interstate highways leading into the city urge people to stay out on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
McCollum said she might skip the ceremony this year and stay home in St. Paul, in case Gov. Tim Walz and state leaders need a hand. Law enforcement officials are also heavily monitoring state capitols for possible disruptions by Trump supporters.
But front and center in Washington will be Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee helped to plan the scaled-down inauguration. She will have a speaking role at the event.
Given the pandemic, the plan was always to limit the crowd to 2,000 socially distanced guests. But Klobuchar said it's more important than ever to go ahead with it as a symbol of the peaceful transfer of power.
"We've had an assault on democracy," Klobuchar said. "The inauguration is the culmination of democracy. This is an amazing moment."
As she wrote her speech, Klobuchar said, she toyed with a line from the late Minnesota rock star Prince: "Instead of hate, celebrate."
But with so much of the city locked down, the normal post-inaugural celebrations will have to be virtual. Not only will pedestrians be banned from the mall, but modes of transportation for getting them anywhere near the Capitol will be vastly restricted.
Smith recalled walking along the mall toward the Capitol with her husband at Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2008.
"It was an incredible, positive and uplifting experience," she said. "There was a sense of optimism. This will be completely different. It breaks my heart to see things so clamped down."
Still, Smith said she would be at this year's inauguration for the same reason she and fellow members of Congress returned to their chambers after Trump insurrectionists forced them out on Jan. 6. Following the attack, members of the Senate and House from both parties joined to certify Biden's election.
Again this week, Smith said, "there is a level of resolve to finish the job in front of the American people."
Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432