House GOP divided over next steps on Confederate flag

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House Republicans are divided over how to tackle a Confederate flag debate that split their party this week and brought floor proceedings to a screeching halt.

GOP leaders on Friday suspended work on appropriations bills out of fear that Democrats would seek to add amendments related to the Confederate flag to the spending measures.

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An Interior Department spending bill that sparked the fight faces an uncertain future. It includes language banning the Confederate flag from being planted at the graves of confederate soldiers at national cemeteries.

Some Republicans representing southern states badly want that language removed, and won’t support moving the Interior bill as it is now written. But the GOP can’t move around them because Democrats also oppose the bill because of other issues.

The GOP also wants to avoid a public fight over the issue given its efforts to attract a broader range of voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Being seen as the party fighting for the Confederate flag is not helpful in winning over black, Hispanic and Asian voters who have been trending toward Democrats.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said the House should have held another vote this week on the Interior spending bill to move past the controversy.

His advice for leaders: “Bring it up and vote on the amendments.”

He said GOP leaders had put Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) in a terrible position by asking him to offer an amendment late Wednesday to reverse the language banning the Confederate flag from cemeteries overseen by the National Park Service.

“The really sad thing about this is Ken is really a good guy and not a racist in the slightest terms, and [leaders] just handed this to him at the last minute,” Simpson told reporters.

A reporter asked if leadership had made a misstep. “Ya think?” Simpson replied, laughing heartily. “That would be my guess.”

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), whose state removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse flagpole on Friday, endorsed a more collaborative approach.

“There is no perfect way,” he said. “I think what the Speaker is trying to do — say, let’s stop, let’s gather some minds, let’s compare notes and find a way forward that makes sense for all parties — is probably something that is quite reasonable.”

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerCameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando Juan Williams: The capitulation of Paul Ryan MORE (R-Ohio) has called for a conversation on how to address the issue.

“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,” he said at a Thursday press conference. 

It could be a difficult conversation, as Congressional Black Caucus members and other Democrats have suggested there’s a need to look at a variety of Confederate imagery. Mississippi’s state flag includes the Confederate battle flag, and statues of Confederate leaders are placed within the U.S. Capitol.

“We need to look at all of the signs and symbols and scars, the divisions and separations and try to do something about it,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said this week.

Lewis, a civil rights leader badly beaten in 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., huddled with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during votes on Friday.

But he said he wasn’t invited to join any formal flag discussion group, and that didn’t volunteer to join it if there is one.

“I think we all need to continue to talk and work together for the common good," he said. “I don’t want to volunteer myself for anything. ... I have enough work to do.” 

Sanford said he didn’t know if members needed to vote on the flag question, but he thinks they will get the chance eventually.

“I’m happy to vote or not vote,” he said. “Process-wide, I don’t think there’s a tremendous degree of difference.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said the Confederate flag amendment might end up killing the Interior bill for the year.

He said Democrats were using the Confederate flag “as a political tool to make political points or to try to affect legislation,” and that it might be enough to ground the bill for the rest of the year rather than force action on the flag.

“It’s a very serious issue, it’s a very heartfelt issue,” he said. “Add politics into that mix and it creates interesting challenges.”

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) acknowledged Friday that the possibility of Democrats offering more amendments related to the Confederate flag on other spending bills would stall the process.

“Yeah, that could be a problem,” Rogers said.

Cutting off the appropriations process to preempt flag amendments would be the latest in a string of moves leadership has taken to avoid a direct vote on the Confederate flag.

Republicans pulled the Interior and Environment appropriations bill from the House floor on Thursday after Democrats slammed Calvert’s amendment.

Republicans also sent Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) resolution against the flag to a committee rather than call it for an up-or-down vote. Pelosi’s resolution is likely to stall there.

The process of handling the Interior bill is further complicated by the fact that the House can only consider the underlying spending bill if it first votes on the controversial Calvert amendment.

The House has a history of taking appropriations bills off the floor. In 2013, leadership pulled the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill from the floor over a potential lack of support.

“This year, we’ve done a lot more, we did THUD, but Interior was the bill that had to be pulled,” Diaz-Balart, an appropriator, said. “So, can it be brought back? Two years ago, THUD was not brought back. So we’ll see.”

Cristina Marcos and Scott Wong contributed to this report.