The display of Confederate flag imagery on federal land has re-emerged as a thorn in the side of this year’s process for enacting spending bills.
The issue, which halted the fiscal 2016 appropriations process last year, appeared to be one problem Republicans would avoid this year. An amendment barring the flag imagery's display in Veterans Affairs cemeteries was added to the fiscal 2017 Military Construction-VA spending bill last month.
At the time, debate and a vote on the amendment took place without the type of breakdown experienced in 2015.
That changed Wednesday when the Military Construction-VA conference report was released.
During private negotiations to merge the House and Senate versions of the bill, Republicans removed an amendment that would have prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from displaying Confederate flag imagery in VA cemeteries on the two days a year that large Confederate flags can be flown.
The change came to light as House Democrats led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia held an all-night sit-in to demand action on gun control that tied up proceedings in the chamber.
California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman who offered the amendment, told Roll Call on Thursday that he is not happy Republicans decided privately to remove it after 265 House members voted in May to approve the provision.
“I think the Southern members of the Republican party demanded that it come out,” Huffman said. “They are great enthusiasts of this symbol of hate and division and they got their way in the dark of night.”
The conference report, which moved to the floor on the same vehicle with a Zika response spending bill, was released late Wednesday night and voted on by the House around 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
It now faces possible rejection by the Senate and a threatened veto by the president.
Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, the chairman of the Military Construction-VA subcommittee, told Roll Call that while he supported the amendment, some senators expressed concerns with it during conference.
“At the end of the day it was not included,” he said.
“Huffman voted against the bill after the amendment was adopted,” Dent continued. “That probably didn’t help matters.”
Huffman, though, plans to offer a similar amendment to the $32.1 billion Interior-Environment spending bill, if it is brought to the floor.
The political realities of appropriations bills now moving under structured rules, which was not the case with the Military Construction-VA spending bill, are not lost on Huffman. Such rules mean Republicans on the Rules Committee control which amendments are considered on the floor.
Huffman is also working with fellow Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York to ask the Obama administration to stop displaying the flags, even without congressional action.
“All of this can and should be shut down right now,” Huffman said. “The fact that we have passed bipartisan amendments showing the sense of Congress on this should give the administration a greater comfort level in making some changes.”
Huffman and Jeffries’ staffers have drafted a letter they plan to send to VA Secretary Robert McDonald after they finish gathering signatures from their colleagues.