Updated 5:01 p.m. | "They pulled the bill!"
This was how Rep. G. K. Butterfield, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, greeted colleagues as he speed-walked through the basement tunnel connecting the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol. Butterfield had only just learned the news himself, when his chief of staff burst into the room where CQ Roll Call was conducting a long-scheduled interview with the North Carolina Democrat. GOP leadership had canceled further proceedings on the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment appropriations bill , and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was holding an emergency meeting to discuss next steps.
The developments that sent Butterfield rushing from his office punctuated a hectic morning that began when many bleary-eyed lawmakers, Butterfield among them, woke to a startling story — first reported by CQ Roll Call — of an unexpected Republican maneuver on the House floor the night before.
House Floor Explodes Over Confederate Flag Resolution
Late Wednesday night, after nearly 20 hours of debate on the appropriations bill and the voice-vote adoption of an amendment barring Confederate flags from draping graves at federal cemeteries, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., came to the floor and launched into a strange and long-winded speech.
It appeared the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee chairman was buying time until an aide could deliver the text of a new amendment — to undo that earlier amendment.
By the time the House reconvened Thursday at 10 a.m., House Democrats, Butterfield among them, were lining up to make floor remarks in opposition to Calvert's amendments, standing beside a hastily-made Confederate flag poster propped up on an easel.
"The Calvert amendment is misguided and it emboldens bigotry," Butterfield said from the chamber floor. "I ask my colleagues ... let's defeat the Calvert amendment this afternoon and even if the gentleman would consider withdrawing his amendment and not put this House through this turmoil today."
Republican leadership's decision to force House members to essentially take a proxy vote for or against displaying Confederate imagery left members on both sides of the aisle confounded.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters at his weekly news conference Thursday morning the Calvert amendment was simply in keeping with a White House memo allowing Confederate flags on government land on specific occasions.
"I do not want this to become some political football," he said.
House Pulls Spending Bill Amid Confederate Flag Debate
The party is already battling public perceptions of racial insensitivity from its myriad votes over the past two years to roll back President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration.
Meanwhile, the Calvert amendment vote was scheduled the same day South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki R. Haley was expected to sign a bill into law taking down the Confederate flag from the state's capitol, a major sea change following the killing of nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston late last month. (Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said on the floor he was expecting to attend the historic signing, but had to stay in town to fight the Calvert provision.)
Ultimately, the decision to include Calvert's amendment in the final vote series leading up to passage of the Interior-Environment bill had to do with Republican leadership's calculation the measure could not survive without it. Little noise has been made over the original amendment barring the Confederate flag at cemeteries, offered by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., though appropriations committee member Steven M. Palazzo, R-Miss., has been fighting it.
"Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence," said Palazzo, whose state flag includes Confederate imagery in the upper left corner. "Members of Congress from ... 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."
Clyburn Slams Confederate Flag Amendment
Of course, this bill was never going to be signed into law as-is, with President Barack Obama threatening vetoes of any spending bill that adheres to sequester levels. It was also never going to get traction in the Senate, where Democrats are filibustering debate on any appropriations measure.
But if it's true the Huffman amendment threatened House passage of the bill — as House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., confirmed to CQ Roll Call — then Republicans felt compelled to do something, anything, to prevent that scenario.
Despite the dead-on-arrival prospects of any House-passed appropriations bill, House GOP leaders have seen political value in a return to "regular order," boasting that appropriations bills are moving through committee and onto the floor at the fastest clip in decades.
The bill they hoped to save was the only appropriations bill so far — the seventh of 12 annual spending measures — they've had to delay passage on, indefinitely.
In a statement made after news of the postponement of the bill's final passage, Calvert suggested he wished he'd handled things differently.
"The intent of the leadership's amendment was to clear up any confusion and maintain the Obama administration's policies with respect to those historical and education exceptions," Calvert said, adding that during the course of open-amendment debate he accepted "multiple amendments concerning the Confederate flag ... without disagreement or debate.
"Looking back," Calvert said, "I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially my ranking member, Betty McCollum, prior to offering the leadership's amendment and fully explaining its intent given the strong feelings Members of the House feel regarding this important and sensitive issue."
The extent of the GOP leadership's misreading of the flag controversy was evident on House floor as the chamber turned to other business. Unappeased by the GOP's retreat on the flag, 13 Democrats forced a vote on a motion to adjourn House proceedings in protest.
Pelosi, D-Calif., then offered a privileged resolution to remove all Confederate imagery from the House of Representatives, an updated version of a privileged resolution pushed a few weeks earlier by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
Thompson's resolution was punted to the House Administration Committee, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made a motion to apply the same fate to Pelosi's measure.
Democrats booed, and then began to chant, "vote! Vote! Vote!"
With McCarthy standing stone-faced at the rostrum, Democrats' volume steadily rose and their faces grew angrier; their fists pounded the air or the chairs in the rows in front of them.
Butterfield was among them.
Matt Fuller, Tamar Hallerman and Lauren Gardner contributed to this report.
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