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Lawmakers set for tearful goodbye to John Lewis

Lawmakers set for tearful goodbye to John Lewis
© Greg Nash

Lawmakers will begin to bid farewell on Monday to the late civil rights icon Rep. John LewisJohn LewisThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Harris now 'the most influential woman' in American politics Georgia Democrat introduces bill to bar Trump from Capitol after term ends MORE (D-Ga.) by granting him the rare honor of lying in state in the Capitol. 

The solemn remembrance of one of the most revered members of Congress will offer a brief reprieve from a recent series of markedly tense days on Capitol Hill, with Democrats calling foul after a GOP lawmaker used a sexist slur against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez says lawmakers fear colleagues sneaking firearms on House floor Ocasio-Cortez spent inauguration evening supporting striking workers in New York Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated MORE (D-N.Y.) and slow progress on a coronavirus relief package when financial aid is already expiring for millions of people.

“It’s so interesting that he left us at this time,” said Rep. Robin KellyRobin Lynne KellyDemocrats press to bar lawmakers from carrying guns in the Capitol House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Lawmakers push for improved diabetes care through tech advancements MORE (D-Ill.), who served with Lewis in the Congressional Black Caucus. “It’s almost like a reminder. You know, we’re giving this man so many accolades while we need to walk his talk, like he did.”

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“He was so patient and gracious and forgiving. And we need to be a little more like that,” said Kelly, who sported a mask emblazoned with Lewis’s motto of “good trouble.”

The opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects will be significantly different from previous ceremonies to honor other figures who have laid in state. Lewis’s casket will be displayed outdoors on the top of the steps on the east side of the Capitol so that people can walk past on the plaza while adhering to health guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement from Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDivide and conquer or unite and prosper Trump impeachment article being sent to Senate Monday Roe is not enough: Why Black women want an end to the Hyde Amendment MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump impeachment trial to begin week of Feb. 8 Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office Biden signals he's willing to delay Trump trial MORE (R-Ky.) said that masks will be required to enter the line on the plaza and social distancing will be “strictly enforced.”

An arrival ceremony will be held early Monday afternoon around 1:30 p.m., at which point Lewis will begin to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The outdoor public viewing will begin at 6 p.m. and last through 10 p.m., and resume for another day on Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Anyone wishing to pay their respects in the outdoor viewing line on either day will face peak Washington summer weather, with highs expected near 100 degrees Fahrenheit and a chance of thunderstorms. 

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The two most recent people to receive the honor of lying in state were the late Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Democrats reintroduce bill to reduce lobbyist influence Trump voters and progressives have a lot in common — and Biden can unite them We must act on lowering cost of prescription drugs MORE (D-Md.) last October and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg wears 'my vice president' shirt day after inauguration Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader MORE (R-Ariz.) in August 2018. In both cases, there were people who traveled long distances to Washington and waited in line for hours to pay their respects.

This time, the Lewis family is advising against anyone traveling from outside the Washington area to come to the Capitol, given the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.) nonetheless predicted that “thousands” will come to pay their respects.

“He will be honored by thousands who will walk by the Capitol and his casket. And that will be right,” Hoyer said in a House floor speech on Friday.

Maintenance workers were already making preparations in the Capitol Rotunda on Friday ahead of the ceremonies. Chairs for the invitation-only arrival ceremony were spaced six feet apart and black drapes hung from each of the entrances to the Rotunda.

The catafalque on which Lewis’s casket will rest holds special significance. The raised platform draped in black was first used in 1865 while former President Lincoln laid in state in the Capitol.

And 155 years later, it will be used to support the casket of a key figure in the civil rights movement who participated in sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington and the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala.

Lying in state in the Capitol will be just one stop as part of the nearly weeklong series of ceremonies to commemorate Lewis’s life.

On Sunday, Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma one last time with a procession along the route he and other civil rights marchers had originally planned from there to Montgomery in 1965 on what became “Bloody Sunday."

Lewis had suffered a skull fracture during the clash with state troopers. But the public outrage over the violence faced by Lewis and others at the scene ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) recalled how, during the fight over passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, he had been walking with Lewis when they faced protesters who hurled racial epithets at them.

Carson was inclined to fight back, but Lewis tried to keep it in perspective with what he faced during the civil rights movement.

“While my impulse was to probably respond and get baited into a discussion, he kept walking very calmly, very Zen-like to votes. And so that helped guide me and my usual inclination to go to war,” Carson said.

“A remarkable human being. I'm going to miss him,” he said.