WASHINGTON (CN) — Roars of the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump quieted on Thursday morning as lawmakers gathered to pay respects to Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died Oct. 17 at age 68.
Cummings, the son of sharecroppers, is the first black lawmaker to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, an honor bestowed to only a few dozen leaders including President Abraham Lincoln.
Congressional leaders, Democrat and Republican, remembered Cummings as a giant. They stood stoic as the casket was carried in, draped in a U.S. flag, accompanied by Cummings’ family and friends.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the Maryland Democrat, who represented the city of Baltimore, a “North Star” for fellow lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Cummings did not just represent Baltimore but embodied it — working to heal its wounds. Last month, Trump fired off a barrage of tweets targeting the representative and his district, calling Cummings a racist and the city of Baltimore “rat infested.”
But lawmakers commended Cummings’ legacy in their one-minute remarks Thursday, steering clear of the political issues roiling Washington.
The one exception came when Pelosi made reference to Trump’s policy of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, an issue on which Cummings as chair of the House Oversight Committee was heavily engaged.
“It was in defense of the children at the border that Elijah said, ‘We can be better,’” Pelosi remembered.
The ceremony in the Capitol drew a who’s who of Washington. House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, Democrat presidential candidate and Senator Amy Klobachar and dozens more leaders gathered in remembrance.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, was also in attendance as were her fellow freshman members of the House Oversight Committee, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.
Pelosi remembered it was no accident that the three congresswoman — who along with Representative Ilhan Omar have come to be known as “The Squad” — serve on the committee.
“Give me as many freshmen as you can,” Pelosi remembered Cummings requesting. “I love their potential, and I want to help them realize it.”
Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, wiped tears from her eyes gathered around the casket with fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Cummings chaired in past years. Flanking the casket were two red and white rose wreaths, one with a banner for the U.S. House of Representatives, the other the U.S. Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Cummings, in his over 20 years in Congress, was universally respected and honored in a divided time.
“His authority came not from the office he held, nor from the timber of his voice, nor its sometimes thundering boom,” Schumer said. “It came from the moral force of his life.”
A fierce political opponent but longtime friend of Cummings', Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., struggled through his remarks to hold back tears.
“Some have classified it as an unexpected friendship, but for those of us that know Elijah, it’s not unexpected or surprising,” Meadows said, sharing that he had confided secrets with Cummings that the congressman took to his grave.
Friends of Cummings in the crowd also included former Congressman and “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough and his wife and co-host Mika Brzezinski, who were married by Cummings. They sat alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN journalist April Ryan.
The ceremony was held in the U.S. Capitol statutory room, encircled with towering figures of American history including civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Many lawmakers, including Majority Leader Seny Hoyer, recognized the battles for justice that Cummings fought during his career.
“Martin Luther King clearly is welcoming Elijah as a warrior and drum major for justice,” Hoyer said.
Lines formed outside the Capitol after the ceremony as the opportunity to pay tribute to Cummings opened to the public.
Maryland resident Yvette Mapp said she was shocked by Cummings’ death. The congressman visited her church repeatedly over the years.
“He was a fireball,” she said. “But he preached peace.”
Another Maryland resident, Sanjay George, said he admired Cummings as a voice of reason in the nation’s divided capitol. George Washington University undergraduate Savannah Ossicky said Cummings was a civil rights leader who stood out in her elementary school lessons.
Many visitors shared they were unaware of Cummings’ longstanding health problems. But Chris Shields, a San Diego native who now works in D.C. for a faith-based nonprofit, said his organization was praying for Cummings’ health since he underwent heart surgery in 2017.
Shields said Cummings’ unique rhetorical style will remain part of his legacy.
“He will be remembered by the joy that he brought people when he spoke,” Shields said.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected to pay tribute to Cummings Thursday afternoon. President Barack Obama joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are set to speak Friday at Cummings’ funeral in Baltimore.