Late Wednesday night, Representative Ken Calvert of California, the chief GOP author of the appropriations bill, surprised Democrats by introducing an amendment, slated to be voted on Thursday, that appeared to undo the changes already added and restore the Confederate flag to national cemeteries. Democrats were aghast. According to Roll Call, Representative Betty McCollum was “audibly shaken” as she rose to protest the move in a speech on the House floor. The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, G.K. Butterfield, took to the floor to express his “utter outrage”:
Don’t Republicans understand that the Confederate Battle Flag is an insult to 40 million African Americans and to many other fair-minded Americans?
By Thursday morning, Republican leaders decided that instead of risking a public debate over the flag, they would pull the entire spending bill from the floor. “This bill is going to sit in abeyance until we come to some resolution on this,” Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a press conference. While making clear he did not believe the Confederate flag should fly in federal cemeteries, he said he’d be forming a group of members that would look at the issue “in a responsible way.” Presumably, Boehner wants to find a way to simply remove the flag from federal areas, rather than allow Democrats to attach piecemeal provisions to other bills.
But Democrats were not having it. In the midst of unrelated votes later Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the party leader, sought to force a vote on a resolution that would remove all flags that include the Confederate flag—such as the state flag of Mississippi—from display in the Capitol. Over the raucous objections of Democrats, Republicans voted to refer the resolution to committee, effectively tabling it. To protest, Democrats insisted on casting their votes manually, rather than using the now-traditional electronic method, slowing down the process.
Calvert, meanwhile, insisted on Thursday that the amendment was not his idea and that party leaders, under pressure from Southern Republicans, had put him up to it. In a lengthy statement, he said that existing Obama administration rules prohibited the sale and display of the Confederate flag, “except when displayed in a historical and educational context.” One of the Democratic amendments would have removed that exception, and the leadership amendment was meant “to clear up any confusion and maintain the Obama administration’s policies with respect to those historical and educational exceptions.” He said he regretted not consulting with Democrats “regarding this important and sensitive issue.”
“To be clear,” Calvert said in a part of his statement that was typed in bold, “I wholeheartedly support the Park Service’s prohibitions regarding the Confederate flag and the amendment did nothing to change these prohibitions.”
As the imbroglio unfolded in the U.S. Capitol, about 500 miles to the south, members of the South Carolina House of Representatives finally voted to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. At his press conference Thursday morning, Boehner said he scrapped the spending bill because he did not want the Confederate flag issue to become “a political football.” Judging by the theatrics in the House on Thursday, it might be a little late for that.