But not all Democrats wanted to continue to press the issue at the risk of derailing the $1.1 trillion government spending bill. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told National Journal that his caucus decided to focus its negotiating power on “bread and butter issues” like poverty. Bringing the flag into it, he said, would have been “counterproductive.”
“It would have been too toxic,” he said. “We made our point back then, but right now we’ve got to get a budget off and make sure it doesn’t get balanced on the backs of poor people.”
The flag amendments weren’t even part of the baseline negotiating text, according to an Appropriations Committee aide. Negotiators considered only the committee-passed Interior bill, ignoring any floor amendments because the final bill hadn’t been passed by the full House.
Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the author of the third amendment, told National Journal that he didn’t press leadership to bring up the amendments, and Huffman said the talks happened above his level. But Jeffries said it was more a function of the nature of the omnibus itself, rather than the issue.
“The National Parks Service should not be using public dollars for the purchase, display, acquisition, transfer of the Confederate flag. Period,” he said. “This is a fight that is not over. It’s just beginning.”
The initial amendments were the result of a perfect storm. After a shooting at a historic African-American church left nine dead in Charleston, the nation was thrust into a debate about the symbolism of the Confederate flag. South Carolina legislators voted to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds, trying to distance themselves from an emblem linked to the country’s history of racism and slavery.
The same week as the South Carolina vote, the House happened to be debating the Interior and Environment appropriations bill, which covers the National Park Service. So Democrats found a way to bring the issue to the floor.
Huffman introduced an amendment to stop the National Park Service from selling Confederate-flag merchandise, affirming an NPS request that its stores stop selling the flag. A second Huffman amendment would have prevented graves on federal lands from displaying the stars and bars, preventing local groups from celebrating Confederate Memorial Day by marking the graves of Confederate soldiers with the symbol.
A third amendment from Jeffries would have blocked funding for the purchase and display of the Confederate flag on National Park land unless it provides historical context, in line with NPS policy.
All three passed by voice votes with no debate on the floor—until, that is, Southern Republicans got wind of the amendments and demanded an emergency meeting with leadership. Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said at the time that as many as 100 Republicans could have walked away from the bill unless the amendments were scrapped.