WASHINGTON - A growing backlash in Southern states against flying the Confederate battle flag spread to the U.S. Congress on Thursday when Democratic lawmakers aimed to remove the banner from parts of the Capitol, but it quickly ran into opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi sought House approval of a resolution requiring the removal of state flags containing any portion of the Civil-War era Confederate battle flag from the House side of the U.S. Capitol.
The flag is a source of pride for many in the South and a remembrance of its soldiers killed 150 years ago but others see it as a symbol of oppression and of a dark chapter when 11 rebelling Confederate states fought to keep blacks enslaved.
The issue has taken center stage after a 21-year-old white man allegedly shot nine black worshippers to death during Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week. The first of the funerals for the victims was held on Thursday.
The suspect, Dylann Roof, had posed with a Confederate battle flag in photos posted on a website that also displayed a racist manifesto. He has been charged with nine counts of murder and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the attack as a hate crime.
House members representing states with the Confederate battle flag image on their state flags still would be allowed to display the banners at their offices under Thompson's plan.
But Republicans, who control the House, repelled the move. The chamber in a mostly partisan 240-184 vote sent the legislation to a committee to mull.
"They [Republicans] have ground it to a halt," Trey Baker, counsel for Thompson, said of the House vote. Baker said some tunnels in the Capitol basement and other areas have collections of state flags, which were the target of Thompson's legislation.
Since the attack, some Southern state governors, including in Alabama and South Carolina, have voiced opposition to government buildings in their states flying the banner.
Also on Thursday, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown introduced legislation punishing states that issue specialty automobile license plates bearing the Confederate flag.
Brown's bill would reduce federal funding for those states' transportation programs.
"States that want to allow drivers to continue flaunting this symbol of racism and violence on government-issued license plates should realize that continuing to do so would jeopardize a portion of their federal transportation funds," the Ohio senator said.