The U.S. House of Representatives abruptly pulled an Interior-Environment funding bill after arguments erupted over an amendment that would reverse an earlier decision to ban the Confederate battle flag at federal cemeteries.
On a day South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is scheduled to sign a measure banishing the stars and bars from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, U.S. House members bickered largely along party lines over the appropriateness of the flag and what it represents.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters he decided to pull the funding bill because he didn’t want the flag issue "to become some political football."
"We all witnessed the people of Charleston and the people of South Carolina come together in a respectful way to deal with, frankly, what was a very horrific crime and a difficult issue about the Confederate flag," Boehner told reporters. "I actually think it's time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue."
The House had voted earlier this week to ban the display of the battle flag at federal cemeteries during a debate on funding for the National Park Service. The service operates 14 national cemeteries, some of which contain graves of Civil War soldiers.
The congressional action was done in response to the shooting deaths of nine people last month at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in what law enforcement officials called a racially-motivated attack. The alleged gunman, Dylann Storm Roof, posed with the Confederate flag in online photographs.
Republicans, especially 2016 GOP presidential candidates, greeted Haley’s call for the battle flag’s removal in the wake of the Charleston killings. In his morning prayer, U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black said "And Lord, we praise you for the courage of the South Carolina legislature."
But the feel-good moment around the flag began unravelling in Washington late Wednesday night when Rep. Ken Calvert, R- Calif., chair of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations subcommittee, introduced an amendment on the floor that he said would "codify existing National Park Service policy and directives with regard to the decoration of cemeteries and concession sales."
House Democrats were instantly outraged.
"The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, racism and hate that should never be celebrated in our National Parks," said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. "For House Republicans it appears the cost of getting the votes to pass this terrible Interior-Environment Appropriations bill is to literally wrap themselves in this banner of racism."
A visibly annoyed House Democratic Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., said Thursday that he couldn’t travel to South Carolina to witness Haley sign the bill passed by the state legislature to remove the battle flag from the Statehouse because he had to stay in Washington for a possible flag vote.
"I understand there will be 25 votes, and 24 of those I might not feel bad about missing," Clyburn said as he stood beside a giant placard of the battle flag. "But there’s one I cannot afford to miss because that one vote, the Calvert amendment, will reverse votes taken by this body to join with South Carolina, Alabama and activities going on in Mississippi to get rid of any official application to this flag, the Confederate battle flag."
But by mid-morning, Boehner yanked the Interior-Environment vote. When asked if thought the Confederate battle flag should be allowed at federal cemeteries, the speaker said "No."
"I want members on both sides of the aisle to sit down and let's have a conversation about how to address what, frankly, has become a very thorny issue," Boehner said.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, argued that the meaning of the battle flag was being twisted by Democrats and the left."The flag was always a symbol of the pride of the South from where I grew up. My family, my predecessors were abolitionists," King said on the House floor. "This country has put this behind us. We’ve been through this brutal and bloody battle. We’ve gone back together for the Reconstruction and we’ve healed this country together. I regret deeply that we’re watching this country be divided again by a symbol."