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Tensions are still simmering a day after a firestorm erupted on the House floor over the Confederate flag

Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis may be Republicans' best hope for navigating the issue

Washington CNN —  

The removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds put an end to decades of debate in the state over the polarizing symbol.

But in Washington, the fight over the flag – and what to do about other Confederate-era statues in the U.S. Capitol and at other federal properties – is just beginning.

The question is whether Democrats on Capitol Hill will use the issue as a political weapon to punish Republicans for not acting decisively on the issue, or agree to a bipartisan process to follow South Carolina’s lead.

RELATED: Confederate flag ‘should have never been there,’ Nikki Haley says

And Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who was beaten at a pivotal march in Selma, Alabama, 50 years ago, may be the Republicans’ best hope for helping them navigate a way through the thorny political issue.

Tensions are still simmering a day after a firestorm erupted on the House floor over the Confederate flag. Democrats caught Republicans off guard when they seized on the debate over the annual Interior Department funding bill and used the issue to draw a contrast with the GOP. Late on Wednesday night, they pushed amendments that would bar the flag at federal gravesites and stop the sales of any merchandise featuring the flag’s image at park service shops.

But when a group of Southern Republicans got their leaders to agree to a new amendment to reverse those changes, an all-out brawl broke out on the House floor. Lewis denounced the GOP move and stood next to a picture of the policeman who beat him, in which he wears a helmet with the Confederate flag emblem on it.

GOP leaders then pulled the bill, recognizing the politically problematic optics coming on the same day that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, was signing a bill to take down the flag on the capitol grounds in Columbia.

House Speaker John Boehner quickly called for a bipartisan group of members to work on a plan to address the issue, but Democrats ignored him. Instead, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi went to the House floor and pushed for a resolution to remove all flags from the U.S. Capitol that include an image of the Confederate battle flag.

RELATED: The speech that shook the South Carolina State House

That measure was referred to a committee to review, but after the swift fallout for Republicans, Democrats made clear they aren’t ready to let the issue go. Most Democrats dismissed the idea of developing a compromise with some informal group and urged action on an outright ban on the flag at federal sites.

“I think Republicans should just tear off the Band-Aid here and get on with this,” California Rep. Jared Huffman, who authored two of the amendments on the flag, told reporters on Friday. “A few of their members are going to vote in support of the Confederate battle flag. I think we all know that now, but the overwhelming majority of the House is going to do the right thing.”

South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford wasn’t among those Republican members who pushed for the GOP amendment, but said he supported the proposal.

“So the reality of the First Amendment is, I need to be able to do certain things that might offend you and vice versa,” Sanford said. “So if someone has a grandfather, a great, great grandfather that is buried in a national cemetery in Vicksburg and is you know, a good person, but died in a cause that was different than where we are right now in time, I think we need to be very careful about saying you can’t on Confederate Memorial Day put a flag on that grave marker.”

GOP leaders feel burned by Pelosi’s move to force a vote on the flag issue and are still trying to figure out the best path for addressing the sensitive debate. But they are also searching for a way to stop if from getting out of control again.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled Lewis aside for a private meeting in Boehner’s office just off the House floor on Friday. The two developed a good relationship after Lewis hosted the GOP leader twice for events in Alabama around the anniversary of the March on Selma.

Neither would divulge any specifics about what they discussed. But after the meeting, Lewis told CNN he was willing to work across the aisle. He made it clear he wants Congress to do more than just ban the display of Confederate flags, saying, “I think we should take a look at all of the symbols, statues, and other places, not just the Capitol, but federal property.”

Sanford pointed to his home state’s “speedy but deliberative” effort to take down the flag, but was reluctant to broaden the debate to try to legislate a ban on statues. Statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, as well as statues of other Confederate figures, are prominently displayed in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

“I think that there is one question about a flag on State House grounds. I think that there’s another one with regard to symbols. I think it’s very important that we not wipe away your past. The reality of history is that we can learn from it,” Sanford told CNN.

There is concern in Republican quarters about how serious Democrats are about sitting down to find a solution. Multiple GOP aides were quick to point out that Pelosi’s actions didn’t give them confidence they could broker a deal with leaders. But Republicans universally respect Lewis and see him as an honest broker.

House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, didn’t outline the next steps, but told CNN South Carolina’s ability to bridge the divide was the model.

“A lot of our members were very vocal, as was I, commending Governor Haley and the people of South Carolina for how they handled this and their decision to pull down the flag. At a time like this, a tone of unity and bringing people together is what the country wants rather than division,” Scalise said.

Huffman said he and other Democrats would continue to press for action, and didn’t rule out trying to attach new amendments related to the flag to future spending bills.

Lewis held out the prospect he could work something out with the GOP.

“I think it’s important for us to come together in a reasonable fashion,” he told CNN, adding, “but sometimes you have to disturb the order of things.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.