Confederate symbols under fire, raising questions on Capitol Hill

Washington CNN  — 

Should all statues of Confederate figures as well as mascots and banners associated with the Confederacy be retired?

That’s the question members of Congress are being confronted with a day after the move by South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. Haley’s call was supported by other state elected officials like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, and Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat.

The state’s lower chamber voted Tuesday to allow a discussion about removing the flag from Statehouse grounds.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who supports Haley’s move and said he agreed with calls to change the state flag of Mississippi – which incorporates aspects of the Confederate flag – demurred when asked whether the statues of figures like Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, should be removed from the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m not sure about that,” McCain said. “My forebearers fought in the Civil War on the Southern side. They fought for what they believed in, so I can’t go that far.”

And the fight has spread beyond South Carolina and Washington, D.C., forcing national politicians to weigh in on state level insignia. Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker used a Wednesday morning press conference to say that his homestate flag should change.

“After reflection and prayer, I now believe our state flag should be put in a museum and replaced by one that is more unifying to all Mississippians.”

RELATED: Confederate flag debate sweeps the South

Statues of Davis and Georgia’s Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, are housed in Statuary Hall on the second floor of the Capitol, while Wade Hampton, a Confederate general from South Carolina is displayed elsewhere in the Capitol complex. And a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate army, is located in the crypt.

Each state is permitted to contribute two statues to the Statuary Hall collection, but some are on display elsewhere in the Capitol complex.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, sidestepped a reporter’s question about Confederacy-related statues in the U.S. Capitol but offered that it was curious that there is a statue of Davis in Kentucky’s state Capitol back in Frankfort.

“Davis’s sole connection to Kentucky is that he was born there,” McConnell said. “He subsequently moved to Mississippi and Kentucky, of course, did not succeed from the Union.”

McConnell said therefore it’s “appropriate” for Kentucky to debate whether or not Davis’ statue should have a place at the state capitol.

“Maybe a better place for that would be the Kentucky History Museum, which is also in the state Capitol. In regards to all the statues that are in this building, I honestly am not aware of what we have and don’t have,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said it was important to make sure that “the states understand who they have here” and that senators would “take a look at” some of the other statues that are in the Capitol building that are not part of the Statuary Hall collection.

The mass shooting of nine black worshippers in Charleston last week by an avowed white supremacist whose website shows him posing with the Confederate flag has highlighted what opponents of the banner see as the heritage of hatred it represents.

Companies like Walmart, Ebay and Amazon have announced plans to ban the sale of Confederate flag merchandise, but what state and local governments and other organizations will do with these and other Confederate symbols is still unclear.

RELATED: Walmart, Amazon, Sears, eBay to stop selling Confederate flag gear

Given their states’ Confederate pasts, Southern senators have been a particular focus of questions. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, was asked if it was appropriate for Stephens to be one of the two statues representing Georgia in Statuary Hall.

“You’re talking about two different centuries, two different lives, two different environments,” Isakson said. “Georgia made that decision when they did. South Carolina’s made the decision they did this time. Both of them were appropriate for their time.”

Even non-Confederate figures contributed to the Statuary Hall collection by Western states like Nevada, are being questioned, because of the values some say they represent.

“I’ve said publicly in Nevada on more than one occasion – we have, one of our statues, is Pat McCarran,” Reid said, referring to a McCarthy-era senator who sought to expose Communists and exclude them from the government. “I think he should be put out to pasture some place. I think he doesn’t represent the things I think our country stands for certainly what Nevada doesn’t stand for. So the statues are important. They really send a message.”

And questions have not just focused on government buildings and flags. Asked about whether the University of Nevada, Las Vegas should reconsider its Runnin’ Rebels mascot, Reid said the university’s Board of Regents should take a look at it.

South Carolina’s Scott, who joined Haley at the press conference where she called for the flag to come down, thanked his fellow members of Congress and the entire country for the outpouring of support for him and for his state after the shooting.

“One of the things that perhaps we can learn through the political process about bringing people together is to remember South Carolina, remember the families of the nine victims, how they brought a community together during the worst atrocity in our state’s history,” he said. “I am thankful that I live in a country where forgiveness can be seen in the worst of conditions.”

Senators also talked about steps that could be taken legislatively in response to the shooting. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said he called Scott and Graham over the weekend and hoped to move forward on some pieces of legislation in a bipartisan spirit in the wake of the events.

“We have a smarter sentencing bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, one that is bipartisan that will bring some justice to sentencing when it comes to the issue of race. And many other areas as well,” he said. “Let’s not satisfy ourselves that there has been leadership in the state of South Carolina, let’s show some leadership here in Congress to respond to this issue that really calls American’s attention to what happened in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Meanwhile Reid used a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday to call for gun control measures.

“We can do something about this sad, violent reality,” he said. “We can expand gun background checks and prevent the mentally ill and criminal from buying guns. Is that asking too much? The people support it. It has bipartisan support. We should act to save lives by expanding background checks.”

Efforts to reform gun laws are almost certain to fail in the current Congress in the face of strong opposition from pro-gun-rights members, something President Barack Obama, another proponent of gun controls, has acknowledged. Reid argued that even if such a vote could not be won, he would like to see the Senate take up a gun control measure.

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