In the aftermath of the deadly shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, House Democrats jumped on an issue that brought the appropriations process to a screeching halt: the Confederate flag.
The passage by voice vote of three amendments barring the display of the flag on National Park land sparked an internal revolt within the Republican Party and ultimately forced leadership to pull the underlying bill from the floor in an embarrassing episode. And as Republicans turned tail, Democrats vowed to keep forcing the issue again and again.
But then, as quickly as the issue blew up, it disappeared.
The omnibus spending bill released Tuesday and expected to clear the House and Senate this week doesn’t contain any of the three Confederate-flag amendments. Leadership aides say that Democrats never even brought them to the table, leaving a flare-up over one of the year’s most contentious debates unresolved.
“This could and should have happened,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who sponsored two of the original amendments. “The fact that it was taken out is yet another sign that those who champion the Confederate flag still have a lot of sway in the Republican conference.”
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.
The result was an embarrassing display for the Right—Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of California introduced a late-night amendment seeking a do-over on the flag language. And while leaders scrambled behind the scenes to decide what to do with the bill, Democrats trotted to the floor for speech after speech about the poisonous symbolism of the flag.
Ultimately, leaders yanked the bill from the floor. And when Democrats threatened to keep offering Confederate-flag amendments on future appropriations bills, they stopped coming to the floor entirely.
“I think it was the threat of embarrassment,” Huffman said. “We weren’t playing games with this. It turned out it was so embarrassing to potentially have 100 or more of their members vote against this language, so they didn’t do it.”
Then-Speaker John Boehner called for a working group to address the Confederate flag, but it never came together. A separate debate flared about whether to display Confederate statues and the Mississippi flag—which contains the Confederate symbol—in the U.S. Capitol. Mississippi’s flag was quietly removed from a Rayburn office building hallway.
But when it came time for the crunch-time budget negotiations, the flag amendments never even made it to the table.
Jeffries hinted that, should Republicans need more Democratic votes on the omnibus, there could be a late push for the inclusion of his amendment. But for now, sponsors are looking forward to next year’s appropriations process—when the rule allows for open amendment debate—to make sure the issue stays on Congress’s mind.
“The 13th Amendment became a part of the Constitution 150 years ago. Why are we still dealing with the Confederate flag in 2015?” Jeffries said. “It is an issue that will be forcefully revisited during the open appropriations process next year.”
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