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GOP punts on Confederate symbolism in Capitol

GOP punts on Confederate symbolism in Capitol
House Republicans are struggling with the question of whether to remove the Confederate image from around the Capitol complex — and they seem in no hurry to commit themselves one way or another.

Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the sole African-American member of the Mississippi delegation, introduced a resolution late last month that would authorize removal of any state flag on the House side of the Capitol containing a portion of the Confederate symbol. Such a flag would then be donated to the Library of Congress. 

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The flag of Thompson’s state would be taken down under those guidelines, since it is the only state flag which includes the X-shaped symbol of the Confederacy.

Thompson introduced his resolution last week under a “privileged” process that obligated the House to act on it within two days. But rather than immediately pass or reject the resolution, the House instead punted, voting to refer the measure to the House Administration Committee for review.

With no imminent committee hearing or markup in sight, Thompson’s proposal doesn’t appear likely to return to the House floor anytime soon. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also made no mention of it in a memo this week outlining the July agenda, making it a long shot for completion before the August recess.

“The committee looks forward to hearing from Representative Thompson and his fellow congressional delegation members on this resolution, as well as their elected representatives at the state level. We appreciate Rep. Thompson offering his privileged resolution, and our committee will give this measure every serious consideration,” House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) said in a statement.

Most lawmaker offices on Capitol Hill display their state flags, but Thompson’s does not, because of the Confederate symbol. 

“We are a nation of laws. We should not identify with symbols of hatred and bigotry. That flag, those symbols, should be put in a museum. They should not be flown under any circumstance where there is freedom and dignity in this great institution of ours,” Thompson said. 

Democrats uniformly opposed the shunting of Thompson’s resolution to the administration committee but all Republicans voted to do so, with the sole exception of Florida Rep. Curt Clawson.

"It was a vote on conscience for him. From his years as a Championship basketball player to members of his own family, Curt has first-hand experience at knowing that an honest national conversation on race is better served when that symbol is not on display,” Clawson spokesman David James said.

The offices of the other three House members of the Mississippi delegation, Republican Reps. Gregg Harper, Trent Kelly and Steven Palazzo, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mississippi’s flag has come under scrutiny since nine people, all of whom were African American, were killed in an apparently racist shooting during a Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. last month. The suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, has allegedly told law enforcement authorities that he wanted to start a race war.

Photos later surfaced of Roof in an apparent online manifesto that showed him posing with the Confederate flag. 

The Confederate battle flag’s appearance on statehouse grounds and license plates in Southern states has led to a succession of moves by officials in South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi to remove the imagery.

Debate over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol’s grounds highlighted the dilemma facing GOP 2016 presidential contenders. 

Candidates declined to take decisive stances for days on whether the flag should be removed until South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley held a press conference to urge the legislature to call a special session to take it down. Top congressional leaders including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) then announced support for Haley’s position.

Mississippi State House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, said last month that his state’s flag should be changed. The state’s two Republican senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, have also endorsed designing a new flag without the Confederate image.

The state’s voters supported keeping the current flag in a 2001 referendum. Mississippi’s state legislature is unlikely to debate modifying the flag until a new session starts next January.

A CNN/ORC poll released this week indicated that a majority of Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride rather than racism, though opinions were deeply split along racial lines. Two-thirds of whites feel it reflects Southern pride, while 72 percent of African Americans believe the flag symbolizes racism.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been virtually unanimous — and vocal — in demanding that the symbol be removed.

“There is no reason why any member or staffer, especially those whose ancestors suffered the horrors of slavery and segregation, should have to see that symbol in the temple to liberty that is our Capitol,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.