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Move to Rename Building for John McCain Stirs Southern, Party Debates

McConnell, Shelby stake out positions on Russell Senate Office Building

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., isn’t jumping on board with the proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., isn’t jumping on board with the proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Reflecting the difficulty of navigating deep-seated partisan and Southern politics, senior Republican lawmakers are tapping the brakes on the effort to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after the late Sen. John McCain.

Alabama GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a former Democrat, is not throwing his support behind the efforts to displace the late Sen. Richard B. Russell, a powerful Georgia Democrat who served from 1933 to 1971 but whose legacy is clouded over his pro-segregationist views. Debate about changing the name has emerged lately due to Russell’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his integral role in delaying the legislation’s passage.

“I’m a Southerner,” Shelby said.“Russell was a man of his time, OK?”

“If you want to get into that, you have to get into George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and all of our Founding Fathers — most of our Founding Fathers, maybe with the exception of Hamilton,” said Shelby, referring to the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves.

“You know, it’s easy to prejudge what they should have done. We didn’t live in that era. I’m glad I wasn’t there,” he added.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York is leading an effort, along with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, to rename the Senate’s oldest office building for McCain, the longtime GOP senator from Arizona who died Saturday.

Shelby, McCain and Flake all have offices in the Russell Building, as does the Senate Armed Services Committee that McCain chaired. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday staked out his position that the committee’s room in the Russell Building could be named for McCain. 

“The Senate is eager to work on concrete ways to keep this momentum going and provide a lasting tribute to this American hero, long after this week’s observances are complete,” the Kentucky Republican said on the floor.

McConnell said that he is planning to establish a group to “bring together ideas from current members, former colleagues, and friends … to ensure that a suitable, lasting tribute becomes a reality.”

Shelby told reporters Tuesday that any such name change “will have to go through regular order,” adding that he would “see what the process brings.” He said he had not thought about a potential name change until he saw stories about the proposal Monday.

ICYMI: The Men Behind the Names of the 3 Senate Office Buildings

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Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt would normally be responsible for moving a resolution to rename a Capitol facility for McCain.

“There will be at least a handful of thoughts as to how Sen. McCain should be honored,” the Missouri Republican said.“I don’t think we want to necessarily rush to decide which of those is the best idea.”

Blunt said that as of Monday evening, he had yet to discuss the possibility of renaming the Russell Building.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. 

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