Washington (AFP)

It is among America's last non-partisan political sanctuaries, a field of dreams where policy feuding is put aside -- if only for a night, but this year's Congressional Baseball Game had a deeper significance.

The charity event came one day after one of Congress's own was seriously wounded in a gun attack that has only highlighted the vitriol coursing through Capitol Hill and much of the United States.

Democrats and Republicans from the Senate and the House of Representatives traded suits and ties for cleats and caps Thursday at Nationals Park, the home of the US capital's team.

They took to the field despite still reeling from the shocking attack that left number three House Republican Steve Scalise fighting for his life.

"Tonight, we're all team Scalise," said top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, wearing purple and yellow in honor of Scalise's home state of Louisiana.

Scalise was at the Republican team practice on Wednesdaywhen a rifle-wielding critic of President Donald Trump opened fire, changing the lives of several lawmakers and others gathered at the Virginia field across the river from the capital.

By the time US Capitol Police killed the gunman, four victims had been shot, two of them critically wounded.

The partisanship that has flared so bitterly in recent months melted away, according to House Democrat Joe Crowley, who was en route to his own team's practice that morning when he heard the news.

"It was an attack on all of us, I felt," New Yorker Crowley, suited up in a Mets uniform, told AFP.

Amid the chaos of that day came a determination by the Republican team -- and Democrats, too -- that the game go ahead.

"By playing tonight, you are showing the world that we will not be intimidated by threats, acts of violence or assaults," Trump said in a video message.

"Ladies and gentleman, let's play ball!"

- A knee, a prayer -

During a cloudless evening far more seats were filled at Nationals Park than at any of the 80-odd previous congressional baseball games. Nearly 25,000 tickets were sold, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities.

Behind home plate, a section was marked off "Team Scalise," a poignant reminder of the previous day.

Just before the first pitch, members of both teams gathered in a huddle at second base, took a knee, and prayed.

A moment of silence was held. Chants of "USA! USA!" echoed through the crowd.

But despite the applause, hugs and pledges of camaraderie, "there is definitely a somber mood," observed GOP congressman Steve Pearce, who was at the Republican practice when his colleague was shot.

"You never know which way it's going to go. When emotions get involved, it can pump you up or pull you down."

Wednesday's attack only served to highlight the political chasm in America that has only widened since last year's toxic presidential election.

"It's partisan, polarized country," House Speaker Paul Ryan acknowledged on CNN, with Pelosi by his side.

"What we're trying to do is tone down the rhetoric, lead by example, and show people we can disagree with one another and we can have different ideas without being vitriolic, without going to such extremes."

Scalise was the first sitting member of Congress to be shot since Democrat Gabby Giffords was wounded in January, 2011 as she held a constituent meet-and-greet in her Arizona district.

That horror triggered some bipartisanship and camaraderie.

But within weeks the parties were at each others' throats again -- over budget issues, foreign policy and, of course, gun rights.

Wednesday's shooting plunged Washington into shock again, exposing the vulnerability of lawmakers at a time of increasing political animosity, fuelled by debate over Trump's presidency.

But while lawmakers grappling with the attack say it is too early to debate gun policy, several agree on another much-needed step: toning down the overheated political rhetoric in America.

"It's up to us," said House Republican and team member Mike Conaway, who could be forgiven for his distractions given that he is heading the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian meddling in the US election.

Prior to Thursday's matchup, the series was tied at 39 wins to either side.

But star pitcher and fiery Democrat Cedric Richmond shut down his Republican colleagues, limiting them to two runs as the Democrats prevailed in an 11-2 rout.

Richmond, like Scalise, hails from Louisiana. The two, despite being polar political opposites, are close friends.

Agence France-Presse

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