GOP leaders yank bill after Confederate flag fracas in congress – Jake Sherman and Darren Goode/POLITICO
Just as the debate over the Confederate flag wrapped up in South Carolina, it has unexpectedly exploded in Washington, forcing the contentious racial and regional fight onto center stage in the Republican-controlled House.
In the course of one day, House Republicans had to cancel a vote on a spending bill because Southern Republicans objected to language that would ban Confederate flags from federal cemeteries.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for “adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation” about the flag in the coming weeks.
Instead of a discussion, Boehner got a brawl. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) forced a series of contentious votes on whether Congress should remove Confederate symbols from the Capitol. The votes failed on procedural grounds, and were referred to a House committee as a way of slowing the process. But the floor was filled with shouts and screams from both parties.
“This is about our morals,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) said after a series of votes on the issue. “About who we are as Americans.” Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, called the votes that Pelosi forced a “cheap political stunt.”
Regardless of how the institution got there, Congress now finds itself deeply enmeshed in a debate over race in the midst of a busy legislative stretch. Since last month’s massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, Capitol Hill had managed to sidestep the debate. But that changed in an instant on Thursday.
This all comes as South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley was due to sign a bill on Thursday that permanently removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the capitol in Columbia.
The story of how the debate began in Washington is one of late-night wrangling over spending bills — the wonkiest, but, at times most effective, part of congressional legislating.
The battle was joined Tuesday night, when Democrats offered a series of amendments to prohibit Confederate flags from being displayed at federal cemeteries, and to stop the U.S. Park Service from doing business with enterprises that sell the flags. These flags are typically displayed alongside the centuries-old tombstones of deceased confederate soldiers.
“This House now has an opportunity to add its voice to end the promotion of the cruel, racist legacy of the Confederacy,” California Rep. Jared Huffman said in a floor speech before his initial amendment was adopted Tuesday.
The measures passed by voice vote.
But quickly, Southern Republicans approached GOP leadership and said they would vote against the Interior spending bill if that language was included. The amendment was offered Wednesday night after whole and partial congressional delegations from Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and Virginia, among possibly others, related their concerns to GOP leaders.
“I strongly oppose the inclusion of this amendment, which was slipped into the bill in the dead of night with no debate,” Mississippi Rep. Steven Pallazzo said in a statement. “Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence. Members of Congress from New York and California cannot wipe away 150 years of Southern history with sleight-of-hand tactics. I will fight to ensure that this language is not included in any bill signed into law.”
GOP leaders told appropriators after the last votes early Wednesday evening there were enough complaints from Southern Republicans about the amendments that it was questionable whether they would be able to pass the broader spending bill.
Republican leaders had little room for error in whipping up majority support for the Interior-EPA spending bill that has been historically contentious. A razor-thin 216-210 vote in June for a House Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill underscored the difficulties of GOP leaders to wrangle enough backing with opposition from fiscal conservatives combining with almost unanimous opposition from Democrats.
So Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), at the behest of GOP leadership, attempted to turn back the amendment.
Of course, political winds are blowing heavily against the Confederate flag, so a vote on Calvert’s motion would have been likely to fail. But such a vote would have made lawmakers weigh in on whether the graves of Confederate soldiers should be allowed to be adorned by the Confederate flag.
Instead, GOP leadership canceled a vote on the Interior bill, eager to save themselves the embarrassment of failing to pass the spending bill. Boehner, who said he supports ridding federal cemeteries of confederate flags, said he wanted to facilitate a discussion on the matter.
“I actually think it’s time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue,” Boehner said Thursday. “I do not want this to become some political football. It should not. And so I would expect that you’ll see some conversations in the coming days.”
Several Republicans privately vowed to get the issue resolved, and asserted that Democrats were trying to make Republican lawmakers look like racists. A GOP leadership aide described the Calvert amendment as a technical measure that would “attempt to codify the Obama administration’s own directive to our national cemeteries.”
But Pelosi pounced. She offered a “privileged motion” — allowing for quick rapid consideration on the floor — that would strip the Capitol of all signs of the Confederate flag, unless it hanged in the office of an individual member.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) responded by forcing a vote on sending the issue to committee, at which point Pelosi and other Democrats broke out in protest, and resorted to casting paper ballots to drag out the debate.
McCarthy prevailed on that vote, but Republicans know they’ve lost the political battle for now. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he wants the Southerners who demanded the vote to speak out.
“We’ve put our heads [out] like a pumpkin on a stick and given [Democrats] a baseball bat,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a member of the Appropriations Committee.