An effort to rename Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell’s namesake building on Capitol Hill in honor of John McCain hit a speed bump on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to endorse the proposal being pushed by his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer of New York. He instead announced the creation of a bipartisan task force to brainstorm ways to ensure “a suitable, lasting tribute” to the late Arizona Republican, who lost his battle with brain cancer last weekend.
“The Senate is eager to work on concrete ways to continue this momentum and provide a lasting tribute to this American hero long after this week’s observances are complete,” said McConnell, referring to McCain’s cross-country funeral procession.
McConnell floated several potential ideas for honoring McCain on Capitol Hill. That included naming the chamber’s Armed Services Committee hearing room after the Vietnam veteran or hanging his portrait in a prime reception room that’s considered the Senate’s unofficial hall of fame. Missing from the list was the proposal to rename the Russell building, where McCain’s staff and both of Georgia’s U.S. senators have offices.
Schumer and roughly a dozen Senate colleagues, including several Republicans, endorsed the idea of renaming the edifice in McCain’s honor in the days following McCain’s death. Multiple Democrats went a step further, arguing Russell should no longer be memorialized there because of his arch segregationist views.
“It’s time that we recognize that as times change, so do our heroes,” said Schumer, who later circulated a letter asking colleagues for their support.
Russell was a Georgia House speaker and governor before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1932. There the Democrat became a towering voice on national defense issues and safety net programs, as well as informal adviser to several presidents. He was also a master of the chamber’s rules, which he used to stymie civil and voting rights legislation.
“He was very much a representative of the views of Georgians – of white Georgians, anyway – and Southerners until probably the late 1950s,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia whose position is named in honor of Russell.
Some Republicans said they were wary of politicizing McCain’s death given recent fights over Confederate symbols across the U.S. And Russell’s defenders in Georgia said the legendary senator should still be revered despite his views on segregation.
“This is a guy that was a giant of the Senate,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who uses Russell’s old mahogany desk in the Senate chamber. “So this renaming thing because of one issue, you know, is somewhat troubling.”
Both he and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., endorsed the approach laid out by McConnell on Tuesday.
“I'm predisposed to say that renaming that building is a serious issue, but I believe right now it's premature to even talk about that until we see what the options are,” Perdue said.
A resolution renaming the Russell building requires the approval of the Senate, but unlike regular legislation does not need to be approved by the House or signed by the president.
Former Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss served with McCain on the Armed Services Committee and worked with him on other issues such as immigration. The Republican said he wanted to see McCain honored “in a very high profile way” but that renaming buildings sets a “precedent that’s going to be very difficult to live with.”
“Richard Russell’s name is synonymous with the history of the United States Senate, so I think that sort of memorialization of John by taking somebody’s name off a building merits a lot of discussion down the road,” he said.