On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer: Rename an office building on the U.S. Capitol grounds after Sen. John McCain, who died Saturday. That the office building is currently named after a man whose legacy is tied to defending racial segregation and that Democrats were on board — the top Democrat in the Senate is the one who introduced a measure to do it — gave the perception that this was a done deal.
But action in Washington is rarely so simple. The proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain has stalled, perhaps indefinitely. And it’s Republicans who have put the brakes on honoring McCain this way.
According to Republicans, who control the majority in the Senate, process is what gives. It may be an unsatisfying answer, but Senate Republican leaders feel the Senate shouldn’t jump to rename an entire building just days after a senator died, said one top GOP Senate aide. This week is dedicated to mourning McCain; he’s got memorial services that span several days and locations across the country. Senators haven’t consulted with McCain’s family about what they want, and this week isn’t really the time to have that conversation.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recommended creating a bipartisan coalition of senators to look at the best way to honor McCain in the Senate. “Proper recognition in a calmer environment” was the reason he gave.
Then there’s the politics of renaming the building, which are more he-said, she-said.
It’s been decades since an office building in the Senate was renamed, and it’s not immediately clear whether such a proposal would get enough Republican support. A defining part of McCain’s legacy was his tendency to buck his party on everything from campaign finance to torture to, in the last years of his life, President Trump. McCain, with that late-night thumbs-down “no” vote last summer on a health-care bill, ensured that Republicans wouldn’t repeal Obamacare. It’s only McCain’s death (and likely Republican replacement) that has spurred hopes among Republicans in Congress they can try again to repeal Obamacare.
Trump has never forgiven McCain for that “no” vote. Even Republicans thought the president was remarkably insensitive to the senator’s battle with brain cancer, by publicly blaming McCain every chance he got for Republicans' embarrassing failure to make good on their seven-year promise to get rid of Obamacare.
Then you have some Senate Republicans from Southern states saying things like this about the building’s current honoree, the late senator Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia, who was a leader of the South’s opposition to civil rights: “Richard Russell was an icon,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). He added: “You go back to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, just about anyone, nobody’s perfect.”
Some Senate Republican operatives have accused Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) of introducing the renaming idea just to make Republicans look bad, knowing that they’d hesitate to stamp McCain’s name on a building when McCain has some of the lowest approval ratings among Republican voters of any Republican (at 41 percent in a recent Fox News poll).
“This is Charles E. Schumer trying to make us hug John McCain, knowing damned well that it will hurt us with our base back home,” one unnamed Senate GOP aide told Time.
“Baloney,” say Democrats when they hear that argument — actually, they used a less printable word in conversations with The Fix.
Democrats say they are surprised and disappointed by the sluggish Republican response to honor McCain with an entire building. After initially hating each other, Schumer and McCain became close friends while spending hours in Schumer’s office debating the nitty-gritty of immigration and health care. They stayed close while McCain was sick. Schumer even knew McCain’s cellphone by heart, which he said this week he “mistakenly” repeated in a media interview just to prove how close he was with the senator.
“There was not an ounce of politics that went into this,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who spoke anonymously to speak candidly. The aide accused Republicans of kicking the office-building idea to a committee, which famously in Washington is where ideas go to die. And they point out that Republicans have a pretty poor track record of standing up to Trump on substantive issues, such as the president’s hesitation to acknowledge Russian election interference. So why would Republicans want to permanently stamp on a building the name of the president’s main GOP antagonist?
Meanwhile, a senior Senate GOP aide denies that McCain’s poll numbers or relationship with Trump have anything to do with their hesitation to rename the building. “This is a Senate thing,” the aide said, adding that a committee may well decide that renaming the building is the best way to honor the senator.
So what seemed initially like a simple idea has devolved into accusations that one side is using an American war hero’s death for politics and the other is too scared of politics to honor that American war hero with a building. About the only thing that’s certain is that renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain won’t happen anytime soon, if it happens at all.