The nationwide debate over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy is coming to the U.S. Capitol.
While President Donald Trump on Thursday urged the preservation of “our beautiful statues and monuments” honoring Confederates, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) plans to craft legislation that would remove the Capitol’s statues lionizing supporters of the slave-holding era and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for their elimination.
Pelosi on Thursday urged Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Republicans to join her in supporting removal of the Confederate figures from the Capitol, lending new momentum to Booker’s effort. Only a few Democrats had previously called for the statues’ removal after white supremacists staged a violent rally in Charlottesville over that city’s likeness of Robert E. Lee.
“The Confederate statues in the halls of Congress have always been reprehensible,” Pelosi said in a statement. “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.”
Congressional GOP leaders have previously stated that decisions on replacing Capitol statues should rest with individual states, and Ryan’s office affirmed that stance earlier this week, POLITICO reported. A Ryan spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on Pelosi’s entreaty.
The push to remove the Capitol’s Confederate iconography promises to reopen an emotional debate that presents pitfalls for both parties.
In the wake of the Charlottesville rally, which left one woman dead and more than a dozen injured, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee in November’s election to replace him, have come out in favor of replacing the state’s Confederate monuments.
The issue is more complicated for members of Congress, however, thanks to long-standing guidelines that empower state legislatures to select the statues in the Capitol that honor prominent citizens from their states.
Even so, Congress could eliminate all Confederate statues via legislation and Booker said Wednesday night that he would propose that move. “This is just one step,” Booker tweeted. “We have much work to do.”
Pelosi, who orchestrated the movement of Lee’s likeness from Statuary Hall near the Capitol Rotunda to a less prominent spot on the first floor of the building, took a firm stance on Thursday.
“There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honor across the country,” she said.
There are 10 statues in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection honoring individuals who served in the Confederate army or government. Others depict supporters of slavery or the Confederacy, such as former Secretary of State and Sen. John C. Calhoun and Uriah Milton Rose of Arkansas.
Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are also backing removal of the Capitol’s Confederate statues. A spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus said Tuesday the group is not presently proposing any legislative solution because GOP leaders back leaving the decisions to individual states.
Booker’s legislation promises to put Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in the spotlight given the sensitivity of the issue in their state.
Warner said Thursday that he and Booker are talking “about how we might move forward on” the Confederate statues housed within Congress.
“[T]his is a conversation that is going to, I think, go on now for some time, but I think that everybody needs to have a chance to be heard,” Warner told a radio station in Richmond. The former Virginia governor also noted that “there’s going to have to be a local process in every community, and we’re going to have to have tough, and in many ways overdue conversations, about race.”
While serving as Richmond mayor in the 1990s, Kaine spearheaded the installation of a statue commemorating African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe and released an official apology for the city’s participation in slavery — but he also has supported local conversations about potential monument removal.
“Sen. Kaine thinks Sen. Booker’s proposal is a good idea, and he plans to work with him on the bill and support it,” a Kaine spokesperson said Thursday. “He also believes the Senate needs to work to address the fundamental inequities in our society that have left African-Americans and families of color in this country with far less wealth, higher unemployment rates, fewer opportunities and less protection under the law.”
Democrats are also facing a growing push from civil rights groups and outside-the-Beltway activists to take a stronger stand on the remaining statues in the Capitol as cities from Baltimore to Jacksonville take on removal of their Confederate monuments.
“This is a moment for members of Congress to come together to show that they are not complicit with those who sow hate and division,” Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “One way to show they do not support white nationalists would be to take a serious look at symbols of hate and monuments to racial discrimination that are enshrined in our nation’s Capitol.”
In addition, Trump’s alignment with supporters of maintaining the Confederate iconography could influence Democratic decision-making. Trump’s call on Thursday to maintain Confederate monuments, comparing Lee and Stonewall Jackson to the Founding Fathers, mark an escalation from remarks earlier this week in which he said the issue should be discussed on a case-by-case basis.