The temperature in Washington, D.C. was approaching 90 degrees on Thursday afternoon, but things were a lot hotter on the House floor at the Capitol.
Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were at each other’s throats, and it wasn’t over taxes, Obamacare, gay marriage, the war on ISIS or the Iranian nuclear talks.
Rather, the debate was over an amendment to a major Interior Department spending bill allowing the Confederate flag to be displayed in certain federal cemeteries and park gift shops. It grew so acrimonious that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was forced to yank it from the floor until cooler heads prevailed.
Ironically, it came on the same day that the South Carolina state House completed its own gut-wrenching debate before voting to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol grounds, just weeks after a self-styled white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans in an historic black church in Charleston.
Last month’s massacre prompted an extraordinary emotional outpouring of grief across the country and renewed reflection on the nation’s persistent racial divide. Yet the Republican-controlled Congress and many of the GOP Republican presidential candidates have been relatively silent on the issue of gun violence and a flag symbolic of both Civil War rebellion but also southern resistance to the civil rights moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
As part of the ongoing debate over new spending bills, House Democrats offered amendments to ban Confederate flags from federal cemeteries and prevent the U.S. Park Service from doing business with shops that sell the flag. Southern Republican lawmakers threatened to sink an Interior Department spending bill if those amendments were included. They were concerned that Congress was trying to paint over history.
According to Politico, GOP leaders were already struggling to stitch together enough support to pass an Interior Department spending bill, and the protest by lawmakers over the flag issue likely could have caused the appropriations bill to fail. Several Republicans complained that Democrats were trying to make Republican lawmakers look like racists.
“I strongly oppose the inclusion of this amendment, which was slipped into the bill in the dead of night with no debate,” Rep. Steven Pallazzo (R-MS) said in a statement. “Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence.”
“The Confederate battle flag is nothing more than a symbol of racial hatred and oppression," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a black Democrat from New York. "I stand here with chills next to it."
With the House in an uproar and many Republicans fearing they had egg on their faces, Boehner pulled the Interior bill from the floor.
“I want members on both sides of the aisle to sit down, let’s have a conversation about how to address about what, frankly, has become a very thorny issue,” Boehner said.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would have none of that, and insisted on a vote on another measure that would require the removal of all symbols of the Confederacy from the Capitol -- including state flags like the one from Mississippi that includes an image of the Confederate flag.
On a vote of 238 to 176, Republicans tabled Pelosi’s amendment.
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