In Congress, war breaks out over Confederate battle flag

South Carolina lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed to remove the Confederate battle flag from State House grounds. But members in Congress rancorously debated Thursday about banning such flags at graves on federal property.

John Bazemore/AP
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signs a bill into law as former South Carolina governors and officials look on Thursday at the State House in Columbia, S.C. The law enables the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds more than 50 years after the rebel banner was raised to protest the civil rights movement.

Just hours before South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, signed a bill on Thursday to remove the Confederate flag from State House grounds, the battle of Fort Sumter broke out over the issue in the US House.

Both sides maneuvered, Democrats angrily shouted, and accusations of racism and political gamesmanship flew as lawmakers grappled with an attempt to reverse a measure that would ban Confederate flags at graves on federal property.

It was another example of how the states are often out in front of Washington – dealing with and resolving controversial issues before Congress catches up. State lawmakers also thrash things out in real debate, while on Capitol Hill, lawmakers usually grandstand in empty chambers before TV cameras.

A crowded, emotional South Carolina House debated late into the night on Wednesday, and then voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag, which is broadly reviled as an emblem of oppression but also revered by many Southerners as a symbol of heritage. The flag will be removed from the grounds on Friday.

But also on Wednesday evening, in a largely empty chamber, US Rep. Ken Calvert (R) of California offered an amendment to a spending bill that would undo what had seemed to be noncontroversial provisions about the flag that had passed the House earlier in the week by voice vote.

In addition to the graves issue, lawmakers had agreed that the National Park Service, which manages cemeteries that contain the remains of Confederate soldiers, should be prohibited from doing business with gift shops that sell battle flag items. Both provisions were part of the spending bill.

But the anti-flag measures angered some Republicans from the South: Lawmakers put the number at about 100. Fearing that its spending bill would fail without this Southern support, the GOP leadership tried to reverse course. It handed that unpleasant job to Representative Calvert, who leads the panel that has jurisdiction over the park service.

The attempt at reversal blew up on Thursday in the face of searing criticism from Democrats.

Leadership was forced to pull its spending bill. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California used the opportunity to introduce a resolution to remove any state flag containing the Confederate battle flag from the US Capitol. It was based on a resolution last month that was referred back to committee (on a mostly party-line vote), where it hasn’t been heard of since.

Until Thursday, that is. Republicans prevented a vote on the new resolution by again referring it to a committee – but Democrats lengthened the process (and the political pain for Republicans) by casting votes manually, instead of electronically.

The spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio castigated Representative Pelosi for her “cheap political stunt,” and other Republicans agreed.

“I see this as a political ploy by Democrats to gain political cachet as a result of a sad incident,” said Rep. John Fleming (R) of Louisiana, referring to last month’s massacre of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston, S.C.

“The people of Charleston handled this beautifully. Black and white together, they were all full of grace. But in Washington, somehow Democrats want to make this into just another political issue,” Representative Fleming told reporters.

The Louisianian supports the South Carolina legislature’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. But he says a Confederate flag on a gravesite is “a whole different thing.” It’s a matter of free speech, he said.

But Democrats had harsh words for such views.

Congress has the power to remove the Confederate flag from any federal grounds and any federal buildings “and that’s what we want,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, in an interview.

Speaking of Republicans she said, “I think they have not a clue as to what they should do now, now that they have shown the entire United States that they have yielded to a few racist Southern Republicans.”

Earlier in the day, Speaker Boehner told reporters it was time for "adults here in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address the issue."

But that’s not how the House usually operates, which is one reason this blew up, says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“Members didn’t talk to one another very much about this issue. In fact, they don’t talk to one another very much about any issue,” says Mr. Pitney. Mostly, members are making a series of speeches that no one listens to.

In his view, the last time the House seriously debated something – where people listened and responded to one another – was when it debated the first Gulf War in 1991, nearly 25 years ago.

Pitney says he shows video of that debate to his students.

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