Democrats achieved a long-awaited moral victory Thursday as the House adopted an amendment to bar the Confederate flag from flying over some federal cemeteries.
But that achievement was overshadowed moments later as Republicans rejected an amendment to prevent federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identification. The defeat — by a single vote — came only after several members switched their votes at the last minute.
Democrats chanted “Shame, Shame, Shame” as the vote count — with time expired — ticked down from 217 yeas to 212, and the nays rose to 213.
The rapid-fire exchange of votes came as members seized on the opportunity to add amendments to two sweeping bills that cleared the House floor this week – a defense authorization bill and a Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.
The House’s vote to ban the flag at veterans’ cemeteries was its first ever roll call on the hot-button issue, which derailed a $30 billion spending bill last year.
House Erupts in Chaos During LGBT Vote
[Decoder: The Confederate Flag Controversy Explained]
The success of the amendment offered by Rep. Jared Huffman could prevent the flag from becoming a divisive issue throughout the appropriations process again this year. But the LBGT issue is only heating up, members said.
“We’re going to keep fighting,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who sponsored the LGBT amendment. “There’s no reason we couldn’t do this on other bills. And I think we have action in the Senate that’s going to take place on both of these bills. And we’ll get another bite at the apple over here.”
The display provided a classic example of a particular brand of political theater, one in which members take every opportunity to attach divisive social issues to seemingly routine measures to attract national attention to party divides, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
“They want to intentionally divide the parties so the public can see where their members stand,” Huder said. “It’s partisan warfare at its height.”
With Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, he predicted that lawmakers will be looking for every opportunity to enflame debate over potentially divisive issues, especially those involving race, class, gender and immigration.
The votes Wednesday and Thursday provided a particularly dramatic display.
After a long night of heated debates Wednesday, the House passed a defense authorization bill –over stringent objections from Democratic leaders — that included language allowing the Citadel military college in South Carolina to continue displaying the Confederate symbol.
The issue was quickly revived Thursday morning, with an amendment in a Veterans Affairs spending bill to ban the Confederate flag at veterans cemeteries. That measure, from Rep. Jared Huffman, D- Calif., was adopted, 265 to 159.
Then, in a photo finish, Maloney’s amendment to uphold President Barack Obama’s executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against the LBGT community was rejected, 212 to 213.
As the time was expiring on the Maloney amendment, there were 217 yes votes, Democrats said, but Republicans held the vote open to allow members to change their votes. Instead of requiring members to go to the House well — the area in front of the Speaker’s rostrum — to change their vote, per Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s rules , Republicans allowed their members to use electronic vote boxes throughout the chamber, Democrats said. That left no formal record of who changed their votes.
“Not one of those members had the courage to come to the well and change from green to red,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor, referring to colored lights in display panels that indicate whether a member has voted yea or nay.
[7 Members Flipped Their Votes on LGBT Amendment]
Maloney told reporters that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., walked around the Republican side of the House chamber trying to convince members to change their vote. When Maloney crossed the chamber to talk to the majority leader about the issue, he said McCarthy told him to go back to his side.
Among the members who switched, he said, were Reps. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine and Darrel Issa, R-Calif., as well as National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon.
“The members who switched are going to hold a very special place in American history as people who didn’t have the guts to stand up and support the will of the House,” Maloney said.
However, he commended the Republicans, including Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who held their positions in support of the amendment; altogether 29 Republicans voted for the measure. Maloney said he heard from “easily a dozen” Republicans who “expressed disgust for what happened.”
Earlier in the week, a bipartisan group led by Dent failed to strip language out of the defense authorization bill that they feared would allow contractors to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.
The amendment on the Confederate flag was the latest salvo in a conflict that has been brewing since the murders of nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church last year.
Debates about removing the flag from public buildings swept across Southern states last summer, after the South Carolina legislature voted to remove it from State House grounds. But it wasn’t until House Democrats managed to derail a $30 billion spending bill that Republicans relented to a push to bring the debate to Congress, ultimately dropping an amendment that would have allowed the flag’s display at national cemeteries.
Huffman’s amendment on the table Thursday was similar to those debated last year. It prohibited the use of federal funds to display Confederate flag imagery in Veterans Administration cemeteries.
“To continue to allow national policy to condone the display of this symbol on federal property is wrong,” Huffman said early Thursday morning. “It’s past time to end the public promotion of this cruel, racist legacy of the Confederacy.”
That bill came to the House floor hours after a debate of a sweeping defense bill that would have changed an amendment that protected the Citadel from losing U.S. military support for its ROTC program on campus because it flies the battle flag over its chapel. The amendment failed largely along party lines,243-181.
“The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of hate, repression, and resistance to the rule of law,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who pushed the amendment. “It should only be displayed in a museum. Americans’ tax dollars should not be directed to institutions where it is flown, regardless of whether the decision to fly it is done under the color of state law.”
Republicans have said Congress should not interfere with decisions at the Citadel, which is supported by state funding. The school’s ROTC detachments are authorized to offer commissions for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.