US capital goes from shutdown to lockdown

People taking cover (above) as gun shots rang out at the US Capitol on Thursday. Police (left) surrounding the black car that rammed a security barricade.
People taking cover (above) as gun shots rang out at the US Capitol on Thursday. Police (left) surrounding the black car that rammed a security barricade.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS
People taking cover (above) as gun shots rang out at the US Capitol on Thursday. Police (left) surrounding the black car that rammed a security barricade.
People taking cover (above) as gun shots rang out at the US Capitol on Thursday. Police (left) surrounding the black car that rammed a security barricade.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Capitol building 'attack' sparks alert; calm returns later to quieter city

The United States capital has been quieter than usual since the government shutdown.

But not so on Thursday - the third day of the stand-off over government funding - as attention diverted from the shutdown to a lockdown temporarily.

Just after 2pm here, police swarmed the Capitol building and the White House after a woman rammed a security barricade, then led the authorities on a high-speed chase.

About half an hour later, the woman was shot dead and the authorities subsequently found a one-year-old child in the black Infiniti sedan she was driving.

When the alarm first went off in the Capitol building, lawmakers were asked to seek shelter wherever they could.

Reports said police officers could be heard yelling to several senators to lie on the ground near the building.

When the lockdown was lifted, however, it was back to normal in the Congress where the stalemate over the Budget continued, and the country headed for at least another day of the government shutdown.

Some residents are now describing the situation in the capital as being a "weekend every day". Foot traffic has dropped and parking on the street is easier to come by than usual as workers and tourists alike stay away.

Some 800,000 employees in non-essential services of the US federal government have been forced into temporary unpaid leave, with a large chunk of them working in the capital.

And with every passing day that they are not working, anxiety increases.

"I think a lot of us are just watching right now," said an employee of the State Department who declined to be named. "The longer this goes on, the more people are going to worry about whether they can make their bank payments or their car payments."

Retailers and restaurants have already started shutdown specials, slashing prices by up to 50 per cent to try and get out-of-work employees to open their wallets. A theatrical performance called Cavalia Odysseo opening next week has started offering half-price tickets.

Clyde's Bar in Georgetown, a DC institution, has even added a "Furlough Frank", "Shutdown Sandwich" and "Sabbatical Smoked Salmon" to its menu, at prices about 30 per cent lower than for its other items.

The closure of museums and monuments in the nation's capital could hit the city's coffers big time. Travel and leisure spending in the Washington region amount to an estimated US$33 million (S$41.2 million) a day, according to the Washington Post.

Ms Concepcion Picciotto, 68, who has been a fixture for years outside the White House with a solo protest about US policy in the Middle East, said she had noticed a dip in the number of people taking pictures outside the official residence of the President: "They still come, there are still groups but it's fewer than normal."

Tourists that do show up have been making the most of the situation. Many visitors to the now barricaded Lincoln Memorial can be seen cheerfully posing with "closed" signs.

In many other aspects, it is business as usual in the capital.

Private companies continue their operations, affected only to the extent that they depend on the government for data or contracts.

The city itself continues to run: trash is picked up, streets are swept and parking tickets are being issued. DC Mayor Vincent Gray averted a shutdown by getting lawmakers to allow the city to dip into a special reserve fund of some US$144 million to pay the wages of 32,000 city employees. This is expected to last up to two weeks.

Yet with every day that the stalemate in Congress continues, uncertainty grows and unhappiness increases.

Even as security personnel locked down the Capitol, some lawmakers took the fight to Twitter.

Republican congressman Tim Griffin caused a bit of a stir online when he appeared to blame rhetoric from President Barack Obama and House Democrats for the attack in the capital. He would later concede that he spoke emotionally and that his "timing was not helpful".

Democratic congresswoman Eleanor Norton, tweeting about the attack, put it this way: "And I thought all the insanity was on the inside."

The authorities were still investigating why the woman tried to breach the barrier at the White House on Thursday although police said there appeared to be no direct link to terrorism.

Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine, whose officers had been working without pay as a result of the shutdown, called it an "isolated, singular matter".

jeremyau@sph.com.sg