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Some GOPs Pumping Brakes on Effort to Replace Name of Segregationist Dem on Senate Office Building

A statue of Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) stands in the rotunda of a Senate office building named after him on Capitol Hill on Aug. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Some southern Republican senators are complaining about the push to rename a Senate office building dedicated to a segregationist Democratic senator, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is trying to slow down the effort.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has authored the resolution to change the name of the Russell Senate Office Building to the McCain Senate Office Building.

Not waiting for Congress, this morning Google Maps reflected the McCain name.

McCain, 81, passed away Saturday at his home in Sedona, Ariz., 13 months after announcing that he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

The building is currently named for former Sen. Richard Russell Jr. (D-Ga.), who was president pro tempore of the Senate when he died in 1971. There have been calls to rename the office building for years as Russell was a segregationist who led a Southern boycott of the Democratic National Convention after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He also wrote the final version of the Southern Manifesto opposing integration.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have been among the GOPs openly embracing the proposal. “John McCain has served his country in many facets and a building named after him makes a lot of sense to me,” said Scott.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said this week that he’s “all for” the idea, noting that “Russell is somebody that’s obviously a huge figure, but it is an era that’s gone by. We’re in a new era now.”

“Who would want to vote against naming a building after somebody who just passed away?” Corker added. “There may be some curmudgeon that wouldn’t want to do that.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) countered that Russell “was a well-respected man from the South, and up here too.”

“If you want to get into that you have to get into George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and all of our — most of our Founding Fathers, maybe with the exception of Hamilton,” Shelby said. “It’s easy to prejudge what they should have done.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said there should be a way other than renaming Russell to honor McCain.

“What I don’t want is to establish a precedent so that something named after John McCain is named after somebody else in the future,” Cassidy said.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) argued against the proposal, saying he’d vote against it. “This was an icon in the United States Senate. He was Lyndon Johnson’s close adviser. They did the Great Society together. So, people would criticize Richard Russell for maybe being on the wrong side of the integration movement, but my goodness he turned around and got the school lunch program done. He did that himself,” Perdue said.

Perdue would not say whether he talked about the Schumer proposal with President Trump, whose signature would not be required to move ahead with the name change should senators vote for the resolution to alter their office building name.

Georgia’s other senator, Johnny Isakson (R), said it’s “not time to talk about it.”

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he’ll be “appointing a group on a bipartisan basis to convene after Labor Day and to think thoroughly through the appropriate way to honor our colleague.”

“I was not notified in advance of the suggestion the minority leader had. But the way we have approached this kind of thing in the past has been on a thoroughly bipartisan basis, after proper recognition of the person we’ve lost, in a calmer environment,” McConnell said. “That’s the way we handled Senator Kennedy, whose career was eerily similar to Senator McCain’s in terms of their time here and their reputations for being lions of the Senate and for operating on a bipartisan basis.”

“And so there’s several different possibilities that this group will consider. And hopefully they will come back with a unanimous recommendation of the proper way to honor the many years of great service here in the Senate by Senator McCain.”

Asked Tuesday why there was reluctance among some Republicans to rename Russell, Schumer told reporters, “I don’t know why.”

“Senator Flake and I sent out a Dear Colleague letter this morning, asking senators of both parties to go on,” Schumer said. “I think it’s the most appropriate way to honor Senator McCain. And we’re going to work to try and see that that can get done in a bipartisan way.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told CNN on Tuesday that, since the Russell building wasn’t named so until the 1970s, “when I worked here as a staff member this was called the old Senate Office Building — or, affectionately, we referred to it as the old SOB and I can’t imagine a more appropriate place to put John McCain’s name.”

“His office was just down the hall here on the second floor,” King said. “I think it would be a great tribute to John McCain and, you know, sometimes you do change the names of buildings to make them more current and I think it would be a living memorial, the work that goes on here and perhaps occasionally remind us of what our obligations are.”