POLITICS
07/09/2015 12:26 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2015

Battle Over Confederate Flag Engulfs Congress

WASHINGTON -- A bill to fund the Department of the Interior stalled Thursday after Republicans tried to add an amendment that would protect the Confederate flag in national cemeteries.

The measure had immediately sparked Democratic ire Wednesday night when it was added unexpectedly by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.). A swarm of lawmakers took to the House floor in the morning to condemn the move.

"Where did you stand when you had a chance to stand for righteousness?" asked Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), warning that in the future people will look back and assess where lawmakers stood. "I stand against this symbol. I stand for the American flag. I stand for justice."

"This amendment is a symbol of hate and anyone who supports it being in a place of honor is an insult to anyone who has experienced racism in their lives or believes in the American founding principles," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). "It's time to relegate this symbol of hate to the dustbin of history. Take it down."

The outcry prompted House Speaker John Boehner to declare that the debate on the underlying spending bill would be put into "abeyance," although he did not say for how long.

Asked why the amendment was added to the bill -- after the House had voted on other provisions to remove the Confederate emblem in parks -- Boehner also was not clear.

"Our members rightly tried to address their concerns in a way yesterday that was consistent with how the Obama administration has handled this issue. I frankly support the goal of trying to work with all the parties to address their concerns," he told reporters, before making it clear that he himself opposes flying that symbol of hatred at federal cemeteries.

"Listen, we all witnessed the people of Charleston and the people of South Carolina come together in a very respectful way to deal with frankly what was a very horrific crime and a very difficult issue with the Confederate flag," Boehner said. "I actually think it's time for some adults in here in the Congress to sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue. I do not want this to become some political football."

He added that he expected the discussion would occur "in coming days."

The amendment appeared to be a response, at least in part, to amendments offered by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) that passed earlier Wednesday explicitly barring the sale and display of the battle flag in national cemeteries.

Calvert, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department, said that he had offered the amendment because leaders brought it to him at the "request of some southern Members of the Republican Caucus."

He downplayed its impact.

"The Leadership amendment would have codified existing National Park Service policy set by the Obama administration," Calvert said in a statement. "Those Obama administration policies prohibit the sale and display of the Confederate flag on National Park Service properties, except when displayed in a historical or educational context. To be clear, I wholeheartedly support the Park Service's prohibitions regarding the Confederate flag and the amendment did nothing to change these prohibitions," he said.

"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," Calvert added.

Rep. McCollum (D-Minn.) had been the first to slam the amendment.

While the fate of the broader bill remains uncertain, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) took to the floor later on Thursday to protest the flag amendment and to demand a vote to summarily adjourn the House.

It failed, attracting only a handful of supporters, but the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), said that Boehner got what he deserved.

"It is shocking that it took a ham-fisted defense of the Confederate battle flag by the most extreme voices in the Republican conference to make Republican leadership realize this Interior bill was a losing proposition," said Lowey, referring as well to many other provisions that Democrats oppose, including deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I hope the Committee and Republican leadership think long and hard about how they got themselves into this mess, and will begin working constructively to repair the damage," Lowey added. “It should be crystal clear to everyone at this point that it is impossible to enact Appropriations bills at inadequate levels mandated by the Republican budget resolution, but adding damaging and ideological riders like Chairman Calvert’s Confederate battle flag amendment in order to attract the more extreme Republicans makes the impossible even harder to accomplish.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) drove the point home further, seeking a vote on a resolution to remove from the Capitol "any state flag containing any portion of the confederate battle flag other than a flag displayed by a member of the House." Amid a flurry of shouting and jeers from both sides of the aisle, Republican leaders moved to refer the measure to a committee.

Kate Sheppard and Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting

This story has been updated with more information about the ongoing conflict in the House.

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