The national movement to remove Confederate battle flags from government property spilled into the Capitol this week, blindsiding House Republican leaders and their rank and file alike, and potentially stalling the appropriations process indefinitely.
Republicans were thrust into the politically and emotionally fraught position of defending a symbol that, since the tragic murder of nine parishioners in a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, has increasingly come to be understood as synonymous with the country's racist history.
Even as Speaker John Boehner himself told reporters he personally believes the flag should not be flown at federal cemeteries, Republican leaders embarked on a clumsy and ultimately futile attempt to find a middle ground between Southern Republicans who see the flag as part of their heritage and Democrats who decry it as racist.
All this came to a head Thursday, the same day South Carolina legislators overwhelmingly approved a measure removing the emblem from their statehouse grounds.
Democrats pounced on the issue, loudly protesting Thursday on the House floor. Republicans pulled an appropriations bill from House consideration to avoid debating the flag's merits. But on this issue, Republican leaders were jammed from the start, and they knew it.
"It makes us look bad," said Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican. "Republicans are trying to expand our majority, grow our majority and attract more and more minorities. This doesn't help us."
At issue was an amendment added to the Interior and the Environment Appropriations bill that would have banned Confederate battle flags from any grave in federal cemeteries, a decoration permitted to certain local groups on Confederate Memorial Day. Rep. Jared Huffman offered the measure as part of a Democratic package aimed at removing the Confederate colors from facilities operated by the National Park Service.
The House appropriations process is run under an open rule, meaning any member can offer an amendment. So Huffman's add-on came as a surprise to Republicans. Wary of the optics of voting to defend the flag, Republicans tried behind the scenes to block Huffman from bringing it forward, he said. Huffman contends the GOP offered to allow a separate amendment banning the sale of Confederate paraphernalia in NPS gift shops if he dropped the gravesite measure (a claim Republican staff on the committee denied).
"There was a mad scramble for quite some time before the debate and vote on these amendments because Republicans were throwing everything in the book at us," Huffman said. "The awkwardness on their side was palpable. "¦ They didn't want to expose what we now know is a very substantial bloc of their caucus that wants to promote the Confederate flag. They know how out of step it is with the times. ... It's an embarrassment for them."
Democrats declined the deal, he said, and Republicans allowed both of his measures and a third from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to be unanimously approved—hoping, according to sources on both sides of the aisle, to avoid a contentious debate on raw racial issues. But the face-saving strategy backfired.
As word of the content of the Huffman amendment started spreading, members from Southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, called an emergency meeting with leadership. They argued that the amendment would block a local Confederate Memorial Day tradition.
"Several members expressed their displeasure and expressed their desire to have a roll-call vote to represent their constituents back home," said Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, one of the members in the meeting. "It was members of the South, members who have a lot of history and heritage tied to the Civil War. And we feel "¦ there's a group out there trying to erase history."
But according to Palazzo, members left the meeting not knowing that what was in the works, saying that the "procedure they would take was unexpected."
The next day, GOP leaders announced they would try to backtrack on the Huffman amendment. They asked Rep. Ken Calvert to offer an amendment that would maintain the Park Service's policy of allowing Confederate battle flags to adorn the gravesites of fallen soldiers on certain days.
But ultimately, the Calvert amendment left Republicans trapped, perceived either as offering an insensitive giveaway to Southern members if they moved forward or dodging the optics of a bad vote if they pulled back. Without some action, though, the bill was doomed. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers told reporters that leadership said they could have lost as many as 100 Republican votes without scrapping the amendment—and those votes were crucial to the bill, as right-leaning policies on energy and the environment had already foreclosed the prospect of Democratic support.
At a press conference, Boehner made an attempt to call for a reasoned, bipartisan discussion on the subject. But it quickly became clear that there was no room for maneuvering. As word of the amendment spread across Capitol Hill, Democrats one by one took to the House floor to decry what they said was a defense of a racist emblem.
In the face of that pressure, Republican leaders toyed with pulling the amendment, but then decided to pull the entire bill from floor consideration. At the same time, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina took to the floor to call for adjournment in protest. Democrats offered a series of procedural motions, including one that calls for the removal of the Mississippi flag from the Capitol grounds due to its incorporation of Confederate imagery, an action Boehner's spokesman Kevin Smith later called a "cheap political stunt."
Calvert, for his part, pushed responsibility up the ladder, issuing a statement that said the amendment "was brought to me by Leadership at the request of some southern Members of the Republican Caucus" and offering a mea culpa to his Democratic colleagues.
"Looking back, I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle "¦ given the strong feelings Members of the House feel regarding this important and sensitive issue," Calvert said.
All of which leaves open the question of how the House can move forward with the appropriations process. Members and staff on both sides said a similar amendment on any of the remaining appropriations bill would throw a wrench in the entire process. But appropriations bills are now a sideshow to the debate about Confederate symbols, one that could be even harder to solve for lack of middle ground.
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia told reporters that the same symbol was emblazoned on the sides of helmets worn by officers who beat him in Selma, Alabama, on the fabled Bloody Sunday march in 1965. For him, he said, there was no middle ground: The flag must go.
"There's not any room on federal property for the display of the Confederate battle flag. It represented a dark past. It was a symbol of separation, a symbol of division, a symbol of hate," Lewis said.
But his fellow Georgian, Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, defended the practice of displaying the flag at cemeteries and disputed Lewis's notion that there is no room for compromise on the issue.
"That's his belief," Westmoreland said. "We are guided by different beliefs."
CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the year of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Alabama. It occurred in 1965.