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House seeks ways to honor John Lewis

House seeks ways to honor John Lewis
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers are seeking ways to honor the legacy of the late civil rights icon Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Biden must look to executive action to fulfill vow to Black Americans MORE (D-Ga.), from possibly lying in state in the Capitol to pushing for an expansion of voting rights that he spent his lifetime defending. 

Democrats returning to Washington on Monday three days after Lewis died from pancreatic cancer were at turns emotional over the loss of their colleague, and adamant that Lewis will be honored in ways befitting his historic contributions to his country.

What form that takes remains very much in the air, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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A towering figure like Lewis would normally receive the honor of lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, but it’s unclear how members of the public could pay their respects while the building is closed to tourists. Still, many lawmakers are pressing for one of Congress's rarest honors.

“If anybody deserves to lie in state here at the Capitol, it's John,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), adding that one of his fondest moments in Congress was getting arrested with Lewis during a protest against former President Obama’s immigration policies. 

“Not only was he the conscience of the Congress, but he also brought nobility to the position,” Grijalva said. “People like him are irreplaceable.”

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Biden unveils batch of his White House team This week: Congress races to wrap work for the year MORE (D-Md.) seconded that idea, saying Lewis “certainly” should lie in state. 

“And I think there are a number of other things we ought to do as well,” he added, without offering specifics.

Lewis's family has delayed their service plans until after the burial of the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another hero of the civil rights movement who also died Friday. Vivian's services are scheduled for Thursday.

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The House on Monday held a moment of silence that was noticeably punctuated by sniffles as lawmakers and staff alike — from Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Calif.) to the House reading clerk — struggled to hold back tears.

Susan Cole, the clerk, began reading aloud in her usual neutral tone from the text of a resolution that “the House has heard with profound sorrow …” but then, in a rare display of emotion, she stopped.

Cole paused for a full 10 seconds to collect herself before completing the sentence: “... of the death of the Honorable John Lewis, a representative from the state of Georgia.” 

“Every once in a while, there are moments on this floor where time stops. And there are no Democrats or Republicans, just Americans. And that was one of them,” Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsChamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night If we want change, young people have to do more than protest Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking MORE (D-Minn.) said outside the House chamber afterward.

Recent political figures to receive the honor of lying in state or in honor include former Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain, Kristol battle over Tanden nomination Biden's favorability rating rises while Trump's slips: Gallup The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread MORE (R-Ariz.), Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsVoters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? 'Kamala' and 'Kobe' surge in popularity among baby names MORE (D-Md.) and President George H.W. Bush. All drew crowds of mourners who waited outside for hours to pay their respects. 

Phillips suggested that there could be ways to have Lewis lie in state and still allow members of the public to enter the Capitol with some social distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It can be done safely, in my estimation, with masks and distancing and fewer than 50 people in the rotunda at a time. I think considering these times and that man, we should do everything possible to accommodate that,” Phillips said.

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthThe GOP's debt boogieman is hurting families and derailing our recovery Pelosi, Democrats unveil bills to rein in alleged White House abuses of power GOP, White House struggle to unite behind COVID-19 relief MORE (D-Ky.) proposed yet another option to honor Lewis, suggesting that the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History find a place for an exhibit about the man who chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, and suffered a brutal skull fracture at the hands of a police officer while marching on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.

Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyOn The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Momentum grows for bipartisan retirement bill in divided Congress MORE (Texas), the senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, where Lewis held a senior position, said one of his proudest moments in Congress was dedicating a committee room in honor of the late Rep. Sam JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonVan Taylor wins reelection to Texas seat held by GOP since 1968 House seeks ways to honor John Lewis Sam Johnson: Fighter for the greater good MORE (R-Texas), a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for almost seven years.

“I think we'd love to see something like that for John, given his contributions to our country and the Congress,” Brady said.

Democrats want to memorialize Lewis with legislation that advances the human rights causes to which Lewis dedicated his life. 

At the top of that list is legislation to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which Lewis helped usher into law with the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., just months earlier. The House passed the bill last December, but Senate Republicans have refused to consider it. 

“That would be the appropriate way to honor John Lewis, is for the Senate to take up the Voting Rights Act and name it for John Lewis,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“Some of the most meaningful ways that we can honor the legacy of Congressman Lewis is through legislation that enacts meaningful change,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezModerate Democrats: Everyone's older siblings Ocasio-Cortez raises 0K to fight food and housing insecurity during video game battle Club for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout MORE (D-N.Y.). 

Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), who entered Congress along with Lewis and Pelosi in 1987, agreed that the Voting Rights Act update was a good start.

“I don't think we could ever do enough for John. That's my real feeling about all of this,” he said. “[But] getting that voting rights legislation out of the Senate would be crucial — that would be a good first step, to demonstrate commitment and sincerity for all the things he lived and ultimately ended up dying for.”

The House had already planned before Lewis’s death to vote Wednesday on legislation to remove statues of Confederates and other white supremacists in the Capitol in light of the recent protests over racial injustice. 

That vote will take on even more significance amid calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the site of “Bloody Sunday” currently named after a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader — after Lewis. And some lawmakers suggested that Georgia — which has a statue on display in the Capitol of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president — consider a monument to Lewis instead.

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Colleagues recalled how Lewis served as a gentle, calming presence who frequently invoked his civil rights activism for guiding legislation through Congress.

Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonIt's time for a grand agreement on Social Security What we need to do next to defeat COVID and unify the country Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid MORE (D-Conn.) helped Lewis organize a sit-in on the House floor in 2016 to push for gun control legislation after a shooting at an Orlando nightclub. Lewis at the time called for his colleagues to “use nonviolence to fight gun violence and inaction.”

“It went from a small group to everybody realized what he represents,” Larson recounted.

In 2010, when Larson served as the House Democratic caucus chairman, he presided over what he called a “very emotional” closed-door meeting with then-President Obama as they prepared to pass the Affordable Care Act.

The day before the caucus meeting, protesters had hurled racial epithets at Lewis and two other Black lawmakers, Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.) and André Carson (Ind.), adding further to the tensions. But Lewis counseled his colleagues that Martin Luther King Jr. always reminded people in the civil rights movement to stay focused, just as he believed they should with what would become Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

“Even when tensions were high and they could go the other way, he calmed down other people. He calmed down the entire caucus,” Larson said. “He practiced what he preached: peaceful resistance, keeping your eye on the prize and staying together.”