House Republican leaders Thursday abruptly canceled a vote on an amendment that would have allowed the display of Confederate flags in national parks.
The amendment would have reversed measures passed by the House earlier in the week that barred the display of the Confederate flag on graves on federal land.
The move comes after Republicans acknowledged they did not have the votes to pass the amendment, and Democrats hammered the GOP for considering the change in the first place.
"I think it's time for some adults here in Congress to sit down and have conversation about how to address this issue," Speaker John Boehner told reporters. "I do not want this to become a political football."
Leadership had to pull the underlying measure—the spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency—which also means that Republicans will not at the moment have a chance to vote on language that would block several Obama administration climate-change and environmental regulations, something GOP members have sought to do all year.
The Interior bill is only the latest piece of legislation the House GOP majority has had to pull from the floor at the last minute following an intraparty blowup that imperiled its passage. Republicans have also had to yank or postpone votes on abortion, education, and other measures in the 114th Congress. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said Thursday that some 100 members had objected to the inclusion of the Democratic Confederate flag amendments, prompting a call from leadership to clarify the language.
The Confederate flag controversy had become a distraction, Boehner acknowledged. "Our members rightly tried to address the concerns yesterday in a way that was consistent with how the Obama administration handled this issue. I frankly support the goal of trying to work with all the parties to address their concerns."
He later added: "That bill is gonna sit in abeyance until we come to some resolution on this."
Tuesday, the House approved by voice vote provisions that would stop the flag from being displayed on graves on federal lands and permanently keep it out of National Park Service gift shops.
But late Wednesday night, California Republican Ken Calvert reversed course and offered up an amendment that would undo some of that language. And he said it was at the request of leadership.
"The amendment offered last night to the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill was brought to me by leadership at the request of some Southern members of the Republican Caucus," Calvert said in a statement Thursday.
Calvert said his amendment would only affirm current NPS policy on the flag and would only strip language from Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., that goes beyond what the National Parks had already implemented. It would back up a National Park Service policy requesting the removal of merchandise featuring the Confederate flag as a symbol, set in place after the shootings. But it would have scaled back Tuesday's amendment from Huffman, which sought to make the policy permanent on future contracts. Calvert's amendment also would have undone a separate Huffman provision that looked to ban the display of the Confederate flag on graves on federal lands. Current NPS policy allows certain local groups to place the flags on graves only on Confederate Memorial Day and removes them as soon as possible.
Democrats on Thursday morning were united in their outrage at the planned vote.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted Thursday that July 9 marks the 147th anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, "which among other things granted equal protection for all."
Pelosi called out Calvert by name for his amendment, and noted that while he was proposing his provision, the South Carolina state House was voting to get rid of the flag on statehouse grounds. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will sign that legislation Thursday afternoon. The South Caroline statehouse flag has been a matter of national debate since last month's shooting at a historically black church in Charleston.
After the Charleston shooting and after "so many decades" of the flag being displayed, "it's long past the time to put away the Confederate battle flag," Pelosi said.
In the U.S. House, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said the move was "appalling" and accused Republicans of "stealthily" inserting the language, which was offered after 8 p.m. on the tail end of a 20-hour debate on the bill.
"That racist, divisive flag of slavery, segregation, and secession is not an appropriate symbol to sell or fly in our national parks and cemeteries run by the National Park Service," Hoyer said in a statement. "It is time to put that symbol behind us as a nation. I hope Republicans will join with Democrats to defeat this amendment and adopt provisions instead that remove the Confederate flag from those public places where it should not be flown or sold.
Using an opening statement at a subcommittee markup of the Homeland Security spending bill, Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey said the amendment was "shameful."
"There is an emerging national consensus that for many, the Confederate flag is a hurtful and intolerant symbol and government should not countenance its display," said Lowey, a New York Democrat. "This morning, South Carolina legislators came to exactly that conclusion. It is unbelievable that Republican leadership and this committee would come to a different conclusion."
Calvert said he should have consulted with Democrats before offering the GOP amendment.
"Looking back, I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially my [Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee] 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."
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., noted that the underlying Interior-EPA bill is always controversial for the various issues on energy and climate—and that was before the fracas about the Confederate flag.
"And this is a bill, obviously, that's a difficult bill—always. It's a challenging bill ideologically, and it's a bill that will not get many—probably no—Democratic votes on," he said.
And he noted that the spending measure has a long way to go anyway. "First of all, this bill was never going to become the final bill, OK? The Senate has to produce something, so I never worry about what the president's going to do in the process until we actually put something on his desk. And he's not allowed to tell us ahead of time, you know, you've gotta do these certain things."
Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Nora Kelly contributed to this article