House eyes votes to remove symbols of Confederates from Capitol

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House Democrats will be pressing forward with votes on multiple fronts this month to take down artwork and monuments honoring people who upheld slavery as they seek to keep up momentum on the nation’s reckoning over racism. 

While police reform legislation in response to the nationwide protests over racial injustice is stalled, Democrats will vote on a defense policy bill that requires renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.

They are also expected to vote on legislation to replace a bust at the Capitol of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision that Black people did not have the rights of citizens.

“I think in this moment more people are beginning to recognize the nature of racism and how these people fought to continue enslaving people,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who is among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members who have called for removing Confederate emblems from the Capitol and elsewhere for years. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month ordered the removal of four portraits displayed outside the House chamber of former Speakers who served the Confederacy as top officials and members of the army. The actions took place after the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police during an arrest.

“What happened as a result of the murder of Mr. Floyd, it pricked the consciousness of Americans who really maybe had been lulled to sleep about the nature of systemic racism,” Lee said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) plans to bring his bill to the floor that would direct the Architect of the Capitol to replace the bust of Taney with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Hoyer called the Dred Scott ruling a “terrible, terrible decision, inconsistent with what America stands for and what America said it stood for in its Declaration of Independence.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not yet taken a position on whether the Taney bust, which is on display in the old Supreme Court chamber on the Senate side of the Capitol, should be replaced.

But McConnell has expressed opposition to Democrats’ calls to remove the 11 Confederate statues on display in the Capitol complex, which he dismissed as an attempt to “airbrush the Capitol.” Those statues are part of the National Statuary Hall collection, to which each of the 50 states makes two contributions. 

The statues in the National Statuary Hall collection can only be removed if individual state legislatures and governors decide to replace them. McConnell and other GOP lawmakers have argued that states, rather than members of Congress, should maintain the authority to decide which statues to keep on display.

Arkansas and Florida are in the years-long process of replacing their Confederate statues in the Capitol complex with civil rights activists, while Virginia’s governor has called for removing the state’s statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee.

Legislation introduced by Reps. Lee and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) would allow Congress to unilaterally remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol and either return them to the states or donate them to the Smithsonian.

Lee cited conversations with Democratic leadership in expressing confidence that her bill will also hit the House floor at some point, but a time has not yet been scheduled.

“Every time I go through the hall with these statutes, you know, I get angry. But it forces me to want to do something about it, because these people wanted to continue with enslavement of my ancestors. They’re hateful symbols and they have no place in our society,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, the push to rename military bases has bipartisan support in the House and Senate despite a veto threat from President Trump over any attempts to remove names of Confederate generals. 

The House’s annual defense policy bill includes a provision that would require the Pentagon to rename military bases and other property named after Confederate figures within one year, while the Senate version would require the bases to be renamed within three years. 

“We’re grappling with the country’s painful past and must acknowledge that the history and cause of the Confederacy is centered on slavery and oppression,” said Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a CBC member who authored the provision in the House version with Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

The House and Senate typically form a conference committee to reconcile their versions of the defense bill each year, meaning that a final bill likely won’t reach Trump’s desk with or without the provision until months from now. But Senate Republicans are already trying to discourage Trump from vetoing the legislation.

“I would hope the president really wouldn’t veto the bill over this issue,” McConnell told Fox News last week. “I hope the president will reconsider vetoing the entire defense bill, which includes pay raises for our troops, over a provision in there that could lead to changing the names.”

Even if mandating changes to military bases named after Confederate generals becomes law, police reform proposals meant to serve as the primary legislative response sparked by the protests remain stalled. House Democrats passed their own bill last month, but their Senate counterparts blocked a GOP police reform proposal over differences in how to approach banning chokeholds, the use of no-knock warrants and giving victims of police misconduct the ability to sue individual officers.

Still, CBC members argue that the symbolism of rooting out monuments to white supremacy is a start that sends an important message.

“If you could just absorb for a minute what it feels like to know that our ancestors built the Capitol. And as we spend every day in the Capitol to walk past statues of people who didn’t even feel we were human, who wanted us to be in chains. And so reckoning with that and coming to grips and moving those statues away will be extremely meaningful,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the CBC.

Tags Anthony Brown Barbara Lee Bennie Thompson Black Lives Matter Confederate statues Donald Trump Karen Bass Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi police reform Steny Hoyer
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