WASHINGTON — West Virginia's two Democratic senators blamed House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday after their hopes of having the remains of World War I veteran Frank Buckles honored in the Capitol Rotunda were dashed, at least for now.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin III both released statements saying the Ohio Republican had blocked the Capitol honor. Asked if that were true, Boehner spokesman Mike Steel said the speaker and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would seek Defense Department permission for a ceremony for Buckles at Arlington National Cemetery.
Buckles died Sunday on his farm in Charles Town, W.Va., at age 110. He had been the last surviving American veteran of World War I.
The episode turned what West Virginia lawmakers had hoped would be easy approval for the rare honor for Buckles into a finger-pointing dispute with partisan overtones.
It was unclear late Thursday how the disagreement would end. Asked whether Boehner would be supportive if the Senate approved a resolution allowing Buckles' remains to lie in the Rotunda, Steel said, “We'll see what the Senate does.”
The honor requires a congressional resolution or the approval of congressional leaders, according to the office of the architect of the Capitol.
The bodies of prominent citizens have been displayed in the Rotunda on 30 occasions, starting in 1852 with Henry Clay, a Kentucky senator and congressional rep. Others include President Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, unknown soldiers from America's wars and civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
Steel said Boehner and Reid will ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to allow a memorial service for Buckles at Arlington National Cemetery in nearby Arlington, Va., “surrounded by honored veterans of every American war.”
Reid spokesman Jon Summers said Reid and Boehner were “discussing alternatives.”
Members of both parties of West Virginia's congressional delegation had introduced resolutions to permit Buckles' casket to be honored in the Capitol. The House version was sponsored by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
In his statement, Rockefeller called the dispute “a big disappointment and a surprising decision by the speaker.”
Manchin said, “I urge Speaker Boehner to reconsider this ill-advised decision. After all, there won't be another request like this.”
Rockefeller spokesman Vince Morris said lawmakers expected the resolution to “sail through” Congress.
“We're kind of in a standoff,” Morris said. “We're upset.”
Were Buckles granted the honor, he would be considered to “lain in honor.” The term “lain in state” is traditionally reserved for elected U.S. officials or military officers, according to the office of the clerk of the House.
In his final years, Buckles had campaigned for greater recognition for the 4.7 million Americans who joined the military in 1917 and 1918 during World War I. Among his goals was a national memorial in Washington for those who served in that conflict.
President Obama has ordered that flags on U.S. government buildings fly at half-staff on the day Buckles is buried. His family has said they plan to inter him at Arlington, just across the Potomac River from the capital.
Buckles enlisted at age 16 after lying about his age. He served in England and France, mostly as a driver and warehouse clerk. After the war ended, he helped repatriate German prisoners of war, returning to the U.S. in January 1920.