Washington (CNN)In an embarrassing setback for the Republican Party, which is trying to make inroads with minority voters, House Republican leaders abruptly yanked a spending bill off the floor after a blow up over the Confederate flag.
House Confederate flag debate leads to embarrassment for GOP
The controversy in Washington came on the same day that Republicans in South Carolina helped lead the effort to remove the offensive symbol and instead had House GOP members on Capitol Hill moving to reverse course. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds for roughly the same time House members would have been voting on a proposal to allow the continued display of the flag at National Park Service cemeteries. The amendment was to be attached to the annual spending bill funding the Interior Department.
Instead House Speaker John Boehner was forced to put the legislation on hold. He noted that the people of Charleston came together to address the symbolism of the Confederate flag after the shooting that killed nine people last month and told reporters he wanted to convene a bipartisan group to decide next steps.
"I actually think it's 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 become some political football," Boehner said.
The Speaker said he didn't personally support flying the flag in cemeteries.
The explosive debate in the House took many members on both sides of the aisle by surprise.
Late on Wednesday night House Republicans managing debate on the spending bill were approached by a group of southern GOP members who opposed two amendments, which passed a day earlier that put new limits on the display of the Confederate flag. These members threatened to defeat the funding legislation if they weren't given a vote on a provision to remove those limits. Since Democrats opposed the bill, GOP leaders needed the votes of these conservatives, so they hastily crafted an amendment to address their concerns.
But by allowing that proposal, House Republican leaders opened themselves up to a firestorm. Multiple GOP sources admit the discussion about moving forward with a new amendment was focused on getting votes to pass the overall bill and didn't include any talk about potentially unleashing a debate on the Confederate flag.
Democrats pounced on the political opening.
"Even in South Carolina today, where the Confederacy was born, that flag is being taken down from the state capitol grounds after both Republican-controlled houses of that state's assembly voted to remove it," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), the minority whip. "Certainly on this day we ought not to see a Republican-led Congress move in the opposite direction."
Some House Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, stood next to large placards depicting the Confederate flag as they blasted Republicans.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a leader of the civil rights movement who marched with Martin Luther King, pointed to a large picture on the House floor that showed the policeman who beat him in Selma Alabama 50 years ago. The officer's helmet displayed a replica of the Confederate battle flag.
"You cannot go halfway -- you have to go the whole way," Lewis said when asked about Boehner's proposal to try to come up with a compromise, saying it was time for the flag to come down altogether "just do it - do the right thing."
Idaho Republican Mike Simpson criticized fellow House GOP members, and said they effectively handed Democrats a messaging gift.
"We put our heads like a pumpkin on a stick and we've given them a baseball bat," Simpson said.
The measure in question -- offered late Wednesday night by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California) -- would undermine two other amendments also passed earlier this week that bar federal grave sites controlled by the Interior Department from displaying Confederate flags and direct gift shops at National Park Service facilities to stop selling merchandise that shows the flag's image.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, who sponsored the two amendments along with New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, explained that while the National Park Service had already asked vendors to voluntarily stop selling flags, belt buckles and other items with the Confederate symbol, he decided to add the directive into legislation because not all gift shops have agreed.
Republicans explained that the Calvert amendment "was an attempt to codify the Obama Administration's own directive to our national cemeteries and it is unfortunate that it has devolved into a political battle." That directive allows park service superintendents to restrict the display of Confederate flags at Graves and restricts merchandise.
Georgia GOP Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said he supported the Calvert measure, maintaining it was aimed at allowing those to mark their heritage on gravesites of family members.
"When you're putting a flag on someone's grave to me I think it's a little different than being racist, it's more of a memorial is what it is," Westmoreland said, adding, "you can't make an excuse for things that have happened. but the majority of people that actually died in the civil war on the Confederate side did not own slaves. These were people that were fighting for their states."
Simpson, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee argued those Republicans who wanted the change put the rest of the party on the spot, and complained they weren't willing to show up during the contentious floor debate. He noted that Democrats are saying "'Republicans are wrapping themselves in the Confederate battle flag' - it's bulls---. I'll vote against the amendment and so will 99% of Republicans, but these guys if they want to defend their vote go ahead and vote for it."
Before Republicans canceled the vote, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield called the Charleston shooting a "21st century lynching" and urged Calvert to withdraw the amendment.
"Don't Republicans understand that the Confederate battle flag is an insult to 40 million African Americans and to many other fair-minded Americans?" Butterfield asked on the House floor. "There are some now who want to continue to honor slavery and to honor bigotry and this House, this House, Mr. Speaker, must not be complicit."
Even after Republican leaders pulled the legislation House Democrats continued to try to keep the controversy alive.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi offered a resolution requiring the removal of all flags that included the Confederate symbol -- which would mean the Mississippi state flag would be taken down from its place next to the other 49 state flags in the Capitol. When House Republicans moved to send that proposal to a committee -- putting a vote on the measure in doubt -- House Democrats jumped to their feet and loudly screamed "No" on the House floor.
A spokesman for Boehner told reporters that Boehner offered a thoughtful response and reached out to find consensus, but Pelosi offered "a cheap political stunt."
After that resolution was effectively tabled, nearly three dozen Democrats joined together at a press conference Thursday afternoon to push their case for relegating the Confederate flag to "the dust bin of history". They stood before a placard of the Mississippi state flag and another showing a picture of the Confederate flag flying on the state house grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. Pelosi said Democrats would ultimately prevail.
Last month the House voted to postpone a debate on a similar resolution sponsored by Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson.
Even if Republicans had been able to pass the controversial amendment, the vote on the Interior funding bill would likely be just symbolic, since the Obama administration has already pledged to veto the GOP-crafted spending bill over separate issues.