Republican leaders abruptly pulled the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill from the floor Thursday in a highly embarrassing about-face after Democrats and moderate Republicans revolted against a planned vote to allow Confederate flag imagery to be displayed on cemeteries on federal land.
The spending measure was already controversial, and GOP leaders initially agreed to the Confederate flag amendment vote to guarantee enough support from Republicans for passage, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said.
Several sources tracking the issue attributed the request to Southern Republicans.
"This was an attempt to codify the Obama Administration’s own directive to our national cemeteries and it is unfortunate that it has devolved into a political battle,” a GOP leadership aide said in an email. “It is our hope that we can have a thoughtful discussion on this matter that is free of politics.”
Opponents said the decision to move ahead on the flag vote--first reported by CQ--appeared tone deaf, coming just as members of the South Carolina legislature were agreeing to take the Confederate battle flag down from their own Capitol grounds, following the racially motivated murders last month of nine black parishioners in Charleston.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest ripped congressional Republicans, saying "a sizable number of House Republicans are eager to protect the status of the Confederate flag" in national parks.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that the issue had become a "political football" and needs to be discussed further. But asked if he would support the display of Confederate flags at cemeteries on federal land, he said, "No."
Some news reports earlier Thursday indicated as many as 100 House Republicans said they would vote against the bill without the flag amendment.
“When you’re putting a flag on somebody’s grave, to me, that’s a little different than being a racist. It’s more of a memorial, is what it is,” said Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland, who added that he would have voted in favor of the amendment.
A series of Democrats appeared on the floor to protest the amendment on Thursday morning, and several displayed Confederate flag imagery to drive home their message. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor that it is "unbelievable" that the House would consider the GOP amendment. "Let us do the right thing and reject this amendment and send a powerful message about what America truly represents," he said.
Boehner tried to defuse the situation by calling for a “conversation” about the flag in the weeks ahead.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., instead fanned the flames, proposing a resolution (H Res 355) to “remove any state flag containing the Confederate Battle flag" from the U.S. Capitol. She teed up several procedural votes on the House floor that quickly descended into chaos, with shouting in the chamber and Democrats trying to draw out the process as they forced Republicans to continuously vote on the very issue leaders were looking to avoid. A Boehner spokesman called Pelosi’s move a “cheap political stunt.”
Pelosi's resolution was referred to the House Administration Committee on a 238-176 vote as a way to slow the flag debate, despite protests from Democrats.
The resolution says that since the hate groups have adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of their cause, any state flag that features "any portion of the Confederate battle flag" should be removed from the House side of the Capitol as well as House office buildings and donated to the Library of Congress.
Individual members could continue to display the state flags in their offices. The resolution would appear to only affect the Mississippi state flags, which features the battle flag in the upper left corner. Some other Southern state flags evoke the confederacy but don't feature the battle flag.
Meanwhile, some more centrist Republicans expressed discomfort with the planned flag vote, which was announced in a hurried fashion by Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., late Wednesday evening, leading Democrats to charge that Republicans hatched the plan in the dark of night.
"People will say 'Republicans are wrapping themselves in the Confederate battle flag.' Bullshit. I'll vote against the amendment, so will a lot, 99 percent of Republicans,” said Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior GOP appropriator.
The request made Wednesday for a vote on the GOP amendment came after “a number” of Republicans expressed concerns about earlier adopted amendments that banned funding for displaying the flag on public lands, Rogers told reporters.
“This was an attempt to try to find a middle ground, a way for those members to be able to register their opinions about this issue,” Rogers said.
The underlying Interior-Environment Appropriations measure (HR 2822) is controversial enough on its own to require near-party unity among majority Republicans to pass it. Few if any Democrats were expected to support the legislation before the Confederate flag flap arose, meaning leadership could not count on many members to cross party lines.
The recent turn of events is proving to be an about-face for GOP leaders, who likely did not want to wade into such a politically sensitive issue ahead of the presidential elections.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that the kerfuffle is over proposed amendments to a spending bill that has virtually no chance of getting enacted into law in its current form. That’s because Senate Democrats are continuing their floor blockade of all GOP appropriations measures until leaders negotiate a new spending agreement.
The amendment originally slated for a floor vote Thursday was intended to essentially codify National Park Service policy following the June 17 shootings in South Carolina. The agency now allows for Confederate battle flags to be displayed only in limited circumstances, such as to temporarily adorn the graves of Civil War veterans on federal property in states that celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday in some Southern states.
An amendment by California Democrat Jared Huffman adopted by voice vote Tuesday would have blocked funding from being used to decorate a grave in a federal cemetery with the flag. That went further than the Park Service directive, which maintained exceptions for historical and educational purposes. The Calvert provision essentially would have undone that amendment.
Calvert said in a statement, in which he tried to distance himself from leadership, that he “wholeheartedly” supports the Park Service policy.
“Looking back, 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,” he said in the statement.
McCollum told reporters Thursday that Democrats were caught off guard by the proposed amendment and she was “deeply disturbed by the action and by the fact that it was done so much at the last minute.”
Rogers earlier on Thursday apparently understood the bill was in trouble regardless of what happened with the flag proposal. When asked whether he was concerned that, by adding the amendment, it could sink support for the bill, Rogers said: “Either way, it’s not good news for the bill.”
It was unclear Thursday whether Republican leaders would bring the bill back up for consideration. In 2011, the new GOP majority at that time pulled the fiscal 2012 bill from the floor before the August recess after it became bogged down in a seemingly never-ending amendment debate. The move came after Democrats and moderate Republicans voted together to remove language from the bill preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from spending money to implement the Endangered Species Act.
The move to pull the 2016 bill also injected a sense of major uncertainty about whether the House will consider any other fiscal 2016 appropriations bills on the floor, bringing this year's appropriations action to a halt. Rogers said earlier Thursday that the chamber might consider the Financial Services spending bill next week.
A GOP aide said that appropriations work will resume.
“Our understanding is that it will be resumed later, and we’ll continue on with the other bills,” said the staffer, referring to consideration of the Interior-Environment bill.
Shawn Zeller, Kerry Young and Steven Dennis contributed to this report.