Capitol Hill grappling with Confederate statues and tributes to racists

With symbols of the nation’s painful past coming down across the country, under the dome of one of the most revered buildings in the nation — the US Capitol — still sit more than a dozen tributes to Confederate soldiers, officials and known racists.

The most imposing are the statues.

Throughout the Capitol complex there are 12 lofty figures honoring the likes of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, among others. Many depict the soldiers and generals wearing Confederate uniforms.

A belt buckle on Joseph Wheeler’s statue, a general in the Confederate Army, is marked with CSA for “Confederate States of America.”

These statues are sprinkled throughout Capitol Hill — many of them in the prestigious Statuary Hall on the House side of the US Capitol, in the Crypt or the Capitol Visitor Center — all places where typically thousands of tour groups and members of Congress walk by daily.

But it’s not just the statues of Confederate figures.

Two rooms in the Senate are named in honor of former Sens. Strom Thurmond and Richard Byrd, both known segregationists.

And there is a whole building named after former Sen. Richard Russell, the Russell Senate Office Building, which houses the office space for senators and their staff. Russell was a prominent senator from Georgia who served for over 40 years, whose legislative legacy is marked with white supremacy.

In the Old Senate chamber, used now for ceremonial purposes, there is a bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which declared that African Americans could not be citizens of the US

In a well-used hallway leading from the Capitol to Senate offices buildings, the controversial Mississippi flag, featuring the Confederate battle flag still hangs, among other state flags. The Mississippi legislature voted over the weekend to remove the Confederate insignia from the state flag.

Congress can rearrange but not replace the controversial statues

Members of Congress have sought to address these questionable displays before, with most of their efforts focused on the statues.

Over the years, some of the statues have been rearranged and relegated to less prominent places on Capitol Hill.

During her first term as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi had a statue of Lee moved from a place of honor in Statuary Hall to the Capitol Crypt, a location of less distinction. But the Crypt is still a well-traveled area in the Capitol, and it is a common stop on tours of the building. A statue of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was later put up in Statuary Hall in his place.

“I could move things around, I couldn’t actually take them out. That requires something else.” Pelosi said of the statues earlier this month.

It is up to the states to choose two statues they’d like to display on Capitol Hill. Congress cannot control what the statues are of — only where they are positioned in the Capitol.

“Can you imagine? Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens. Treason. They committed treason against the United States of America, and their statues are still here because their states put them there,” Pelosi said earlier this month.

Several states had already been making plans to swap out their statues before this moment of national reckoning.

Florida is taking down their statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith and replacing it with civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and Arkansas is pulling both of its controversial statues, swapping them out for country singer Johnny Cash and civil rights leader Daisy Bates.

New push to have congress change the rules for statues

For years, a group of Democratic lawmakers have advocated for new legislation to remove the Confederate statues. They have pushed for action with renewed urgency in recent weeks.

“We cannot separate the Confederate statues from this history and legacy of white supremacy in this country,” Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the Senate version of legislation, said on the Senate floor earlier this month.

A House Democratic aide told CNN there may be a vote on the legislation, sponsored in the House by Reps. Barbara Lee and Bennie Thompson, sometime soon. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters he supports removing the statues. He has also backed legislation to remove the Taney bust and replace it with Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the Supreme Court. That bill could get a vote soon as well.

“In Maryland we made the decision to remove a statue of Taney from the State House grounds, reflecting his shameful contribution to the evil system of slavery and its defense, and we ought to do the same here,” Hoyer said.

But so far, Republicans in the House and Senate have shown little appetite to move on the issue, saying it should be up to the states to decide who they want to memorialize on Capitol Hill.

“The states make that decision,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said earlier this month. “I think the appropriate way to deal with this issue is to stick with the tradition.”

The Republican leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, echoed those sentiments. “When it comes to statues, states have the power to select who to come forward,” he said.

Pelosi has called for the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library — the committee that oversees the Statuary Hall collection as well as other fine art in the Capitol — to direct the Architect of the Capitol to immediately take steps to remove the statues.

“The statues in the Capitol should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation,” Pelosi wrote to the committee. “Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals. Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed.”

The vice chairwoman of the committee, Democratic Rep. Lofgren, has said she wants the committee to “swiftly” approve the removal of the statues.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the Republican chairman of the committee, so far has only shown an openness to potentially holding a hearing to consider the issue.

“I’d certainly like to have some time to decide if we should have a hearing on this. I’d like to see, to get the opinion of people who are taking similar statues out of the building. I’d also like to see what other states have in mind, as they are part of this agreement,” Blunt said earlier this month, when he blocked Booker’s legislation to remove the statues on the Senate floor.

House and Senate sources told CNN the committee has been working at the staff level to discuss ways they could approach the matter. But there is no path forward yet, and Republicans are taking cues from McConnell — who has made his feelings known.

“What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago who had any connection to slavery,” McConnell said earlier this month.

Beyond the statues

After Arizona Sen. John McCain’s death in 2018, some members of Congress called to rename the Russell Senate office building after McCain instead. But those efforts haven’t reached fruition.

House congressional sources told CNN there could be more of an effort to look at whole-scale changes that should be made on Capitol Hill besides physical artwork.

Discussions are ongoing about potentially revamping the website of the “Architect of the Capitol,” which lists descriptions about the statues and artwork throughout the Capitol.

Some believe the descriptions paint too rosy of a picture of Confederates and other historical figures, and they need to reevaluate the way in which they are commemorating individuals on official publications.