As the southern U.S. state of South Carolina prepared to take the Confederate battle flag down from its capitol grounds, passionate debate over the flag issue unexpectedly erupted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republican Representative Ken Calvert of California introduced an amendment to a spending bill Thursday that would have reversed an earlier House amendment banning the display of Confederate flags at federal cemeteries and the sale of the flags in national park gift shops.
In reaction, Democrats lined up to denounce the proposal on the House floor.
“What exactly is the tradition the Confederate battle flag is meant to represent? Is it slavery, rape, kidnap, genocide, treason or all of the above?” demanded Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
But Republican Representative Steven Palazzo of Mississippi argued in a written statement: "Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence. Members of Congress from New York and California cannot wipe away 150 years of Southern history with sleight-of-hand tactics."
A small version of the Confederate flag makes up the top corner of Mississippi’s state flag.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio sought to avoid further conflict, pulling the spending bill — along with the flag amendment — from the day’s voting agenda.
Boehner told reporters: “I think it is time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue. I do not want this to became some political football.”
Asked if he personally thought Confederate flags should be displayed in federal cemeteries, Boehner said he did not.
Banging on Chairs
Pulling the bill did not stop the Democrats. Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California introduced a privileged resolution that would ban any state flags that include elements of the Confederate flag from the U.S. Capitol complex. Using a privileged resolution, Pelosi was attempting to force a vote without approval from the Republican leadership.
Tempers flared on the House floor. Both Democratic and Republican members shouted loudly and banged on chairs over whether a vote should be held on Pelosi’s resolution. The Republican majority prevailed and the measure was instead sent to committee, where a hearing will be held.
Afterward, House Democrats held a news conference asking why the Republican leadership felt it needed to hold a hearing on banning any image of the Confederate flag from the U.S. Capitol and congressional office buildings. The Democrats argued that the flag is an historical artifact and should be relegated to museums.
A spokesman for Boehner released a statement saying he was trying to find a mature solution to the sensitive flag issue and accused Pelosi of staging a “cheap political stunt” on the House floor.
Public and private initiatives to ban the Confederate flag were reignited after nine parishioners of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, were fatally shot during Bible study on June 17.
Photos later emerged showing Dylann Roof, a white youth who has been charged in the shootings, holding the Confederate flag, which many Americans consider a symbol of the American South's era of slavery and white supremacy.