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Security upgrade gives new meaning to safe seat

Holding on to a safe seat in Congress, it turns out, has nothing to do with fighting off pesky political opponents.

When members of the House return from their recess Sept. 8, they will find new bulletproof seat backs in all the chairs on the House floor.

The old, clunky metal plates that were installed 15 years ago to protect members' backs are gone. They have been replaced by a heavy fabric that is less likely to cause bullets to ricochet around the chamber. Instead, officials said, the new seat backs will absorb or safely deflect a fired projectile.

Capitol police declined to elaborate about the project but said it is among several new security measures, including better metal detectors, alarm systems and surveillance cameras.

"There is just an ongoing security enhancement taking place," said Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police. "That's about as far as I can go."

Congress approved $106-million last September for improved security, including 240 new officers, after a Capitol shooting in July 1998 killed two officers. The shootings were in hallways, not in the House chamber.

Capitol police ordered the new armor at the request of the House sergeant at arms, officials said. The material also can be used in bulletproof vests, vehicles and walls and is intended either to trap bullets or deflect them to the ground.

House officials would not disclose the cost of the project because it is security-related. It is not part of the $106-million appropriated by Congress, Nichols said.

Pete Jeffries, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said that he was unaware of the project but that it would have come with Hastert's approval at the request of the sergeant at arms.

There are 448 seats on the House floor, including 435 for members. They are attached in semicircular structures, unlike the 100 individual swivel chairs in the Senate. Several officials said they did not think Senate chairs had bulletproof backing, but that could not be confirmed because of security concerns.

It's unclear how many of the members themselves are aware that the House chairs are designed to offer cover as well as a place to sit. At least one, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, had no idea.

"We sit around a lot waiting for votes," said Skelton. "You'd think someone would have said something."

Security officials said it is unlikely that anyone could get into the House or Senate galleries with a gun because visitors must pass through metal detectors twice, once at the Capitol entrance and again before entering the galleries.