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On opposite sides of the political spectrum, President Barack Obama and new House Speaker John Boehner suddenly face the same challenge: rise above the anger, suspicion and hostility of their liberal and conservative bases to help a rattled nation deal with the deadly outburst of violence in Arizona.
But what comes after the easy moment of silence?
For now, both men are stepping past the question of what role, if any, the vitriol of the past election campaign played in Saturday’s shooting rampage that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition and six others dead. Instead, they’re grappling with the high-stakes test the tragedy presents over how to lead the nation going forward.
Obama, the Democratic president halfway through his term, has spoken of his regret for not having raised the level of political discourse in a deeply divided nation. Boehner, the newly installed Republican House speaker, is second in line to the presidency but has yet to shape his role as a national figure.
For both men, the path ahead is perilous, filled with the political risk of alienating parts of the stunned electorate.
The parties’ rank-and-file supporters handle the nuts and bolts of electoral politics — fundraising, door-knocking and the like. But they also are sources of the red-hot rhetoric that inflames passions, with right- and left-leaning talk radio, cable networks and Internet sites their outlets of choice.
Those Republican and Democratic foot soldiers may not appreciate calls from the top to tone it down, though the center of the electorate, detesting ideological warfare and wanting those in Washington to work together, certainly will.
“All of us are still grieving and in shock from the tragedy that took place,” Obama said Monday, calling for healing and sidestepping any potentially divisive issues. He is to travel to Tucson, Ariz., on Wednesday to speak at a memorial service for the victims, the White House said.
“It’s going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation,” Obama said.
How — or whether — to do that is an unsettled question among newly empowered Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Boehner has wide latitude, said former House historian Raymond Smock.
“I think he has the potential to have a very important role in how Congress responds and the public tone that is set,” said Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.
For now, Boehner is responding as head of the House, not the leader of just one party. In a conference call over the weekend, he told lawmakers of both parties that an attack on one member of Congress is an attack on all.
“What is critical is that we stand together at this dark time as one body,” he said. “We need to rally around our wounded colleague, the families of the fallen and the people of Arizona’s 8th District. And, frankly, we need to rally around each other.”
In one quick action, House Republicans postponed a vote this week that was certain to be divisive on repealing Obama’s health care overhaul. Debate over it last summer prompted threats and vandalism against lawmakers, including Giffords.
Instead, the House was poised to take up a resolution Wednesday supporting Giffords and the other shooting victims.
In Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, Boehner attended the swearing-in of a longtime friend, new Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“It was a horrible tragedy,” Boehner said of the Tucson shootings. “I’m not going to say anything more than that.”
None of that prevented finger-pointing from the far sides of the political spectrum. Both the left and the right hurled accusations that the other was inciting violence. The suspect’s political leanings weren’t clear.
Some Democrats cast blame on the right-leaning tea party movement and Sarah Palin. She had told her followers “Don’t retreat; reload” last year and used crosshairs to denote congressional districts, including Giffords’, where she wanted Republicans to win.
Conservatives, in turn, said the left is just as nasty in its rhetoric. They pointed out that it was Obama who declared during the 2008 presidential campaign, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
Over the weekend, Obama said, “What Americans do at times of tragedy is to come together and support each other.”
The man accused of the shootings, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, appeared in court late Monday. He was ordered held without bail.
The night before the violence, Giffords was trying to show a peaceful path.
In an e-mail to a friend in Kentucky discussing how to “promote centrism and moderation,” she congratulated Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson on his new position at Harvard University.
“After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation,” Giffords wrote. “I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press