Lawmakers joined in bipartisan unity Thursday to remember their colleague, friend and confidante Elijah E. Cummings at a memorial service in the Capitol.
Members of Congress from both chambers and both parties shed tears together as they honored the Maryland Democrat’s life and legacy. House votes and impeachment depositions were canceled so that Congress could gather to mourn the African-American lawmaker in a ceremony in Statuary Hall.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Cummings’ unending commitment to his Baltimore-based district and constituents, just 40 miles from Capitol Hill.
“Some people come to Washington because they’re ambitious and want to leave their hometown. And then there are people who want to come to Washington precisely because they will never leave their hometowns behind,” said the Kentucky Republican.
He referenced the tumultuous time in Baltimore in 2015, in the days following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. After working all day in Congress, Cummings would go home to Baltimore and walk in the neighborhoods, urging peace.
“He climbed the ranks here in the Capitol. Not because he outgrew his hometown, but because he was so committed to it,” said McConnell.
Cummings died Oct. 17 of complications from longstanding health issues. He was 68.
Cummings’ American flag-draped casket was brought into Statuary Hall and placed on the Lincoln catafalque, the same platform built and used during the funeral of Abraham Lincoln after the 16th president was shot dead.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the late lawmaker’s widow, and his family for allowing for a special memorial in the Capitol to honor his nearly 23 years of congressional service.
“He was truly a master of the House,” Pelosi said.
She spoke about his constant striving for a better future, for his community, for the country and for Congress itself.
“He was also a mentor of the House,” Pelosi said. “When we were deciding committee assignments, he said ‘give me as many freshmen as you can. I love their potential and I want to help them realize it.’”
Some of those members he most recently mentored were among the standing-room-only crowd. Freshman Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna S. Pressley were both on hand to bid their Oversight and Reform Committee chairman farewell, along with many other lawmakers Cummings advised.
“Let us take comfort and strength in knowing that chairman Cummings’ legacy will be forever enshrined in the halls of Congress through the next generation of leaders that his work impacted and inspired,” said Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
With the most members in its history, the CBC occupied more than four rows of seats behind leadership and other speakers seated up front.
Bass, Pressley and many other members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore Kente cloth stoles over their suits and dresses, creating a striking image as they sat together and later encircled Cummings’ casket for a prayer.
Cummings’ advice was not just for young or new members on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the crowd.
“No matter your politics, you went to Elijah for guidance,” he said. “I will miss those conversations.”
North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who both sparred with Cummings and considered him a close friend, gave an emotional speech about their relationship.
“Perhaps this place, and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships. I know I have been blessed by one,” he said through tears.
Since Cummings’ death many members have given speeches or spoken about his enduring belief during challenging times that “we can be better than this.” That sentiment was on display as the divided 116th Congress mixed and mingled ahead before and after the ceremony.
Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan chatted with Virginia Democrat Gerald E. Connolly toward the back of the “family” section of seating. Pelosi and McConnell engaged in a long and animated conversation ahead of the memorial, as did Schumer, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer.
Selected guests in the family section included Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, Rev. Al Sharpton, Sen. Charles E. Grassley and a handful of House Democrats. Librarian of Congress and Baltimore native Carla D. Hayden also joined them.
There was no mention, at least at the microphones, of the task that consumed Cummings’ role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee in his final days and weeks — the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.