House GOP leaders abruptly canceled a vote Thursday on a spending bill for the Interior Department amid an intraparty split over the display of the Confederate flag.
The bill was pulled after the House moved to vote on an amendment to the measure that would continue to allow the Confederate flag to be displayed in certain federal cemeteries.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) offered that amendment late Wednesday night, triggering a furious blowback from House Democrats who ripped Republicans over the issue.
“Don't Republicans understand that the Confederate battle flag is an insult to 40 million African Americans and to many other fair-minded Americans?” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (D-N.C.) said on the House floor.
A series of Democrats went to the floor to denounce the vote, which they noted would take place the same day that South Carolina’s House had voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state capitol grounds.
Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE (R-Ohio) told reporters the spending bill had been pulled to avoid the issue from becoming a “political football.”
“That bill is going to sit in abeyance until we come to some resolution,” he said.BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE said he does not believe Confederate flags should be displayed at federal cemeteries. When asked why the amendment was added to the bill, he said he "supported the goal of trying to work with all the parties to address their concerns."
Calvert’s amendment would have reversed an earlier vote this week by the House.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in a voice vote adopted an amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) banning the display of Confederate flags in national cemeteries. It passed with less than ten minutes of debate and no opposition.
But Republicans who found out about the amendment after the fact indicated that they would oppose the underlying Interior spending bill because of the Confederate flag language.
Given Democratic opposition to the Interior bill, that raised questions over whether it would have the support to win a floor vote.
Calvert defended his Confederate flag amendment after the spending bill was pulled, saying GOP leaders acting on behalf of Republicans from southern states had asked him to offer it.
He argued the bill would have codified existing policy.
“The amendment offered last night to the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill was brought to me by leadership at the request of some southern members of the Republican Caucus,” he said. “The leadership amendment would have codified existing National Park Service policy set by the Obama administration.”
Under a 2010 directive from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, national cemeteries that commemorate a designated Confederate Memorial Day can allow the decoration of Civil War veterans' graves with small Confederate flags. The directive states that decorative flags must be removed "as soon as possible" once the Confederate Memorial Day is over.
Calvert said he completely supports what the Park Service and administration have done concerning Confederate flags, and his amendment would not change that. But Calvert said he should have worked more closely with Democrats on the proposal, singling out Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).
“Looking back, I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially my Ranking Member Betty McCollum, prior to offering the leadership's amendment and fully explaining its intent given the strong feelings members of the House feel regarding this important and sensitive issue," Calvert said.
Most Democrats already opposed the Interior bill because of its deep spending cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and policy riders blocking climate-related rule-making from President Obama.
McCollum said she didn’t expect many Democrats to support the underlying bill even before Republicans pushed the flag amendment.
“So this vote was a no vote before and with this amendment, if it should go on, it becomes a hell no vote,” she said before leadership pulled the bill.
A political firestorm over the flying of the Confederate flag erupted after nine African-Americans were killed last month in a Charleston, S.C. church. The alleged gunman is a young white man who had been photographed with the flag.
Days after the killings, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed from South Carolina's state capitol grounds.
Boehner on Thursday said it was time for “adults” in Congress to deal with the issue in Washington.
“We all witnessed the people of Charleston and South Carolina come together in a respectful way to deal with what was a very horrific crime and a very difficult issue with the Confederate flag,” Boehner said at a news conference. “I actually think it is time for some adults in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue.”
The House had spent about 13 hours debating more than 100 amendments to the bill, including a session that went past midnight into early Wednesday morning. Yet the entire bill ultimately derailed over the Confederate flag controversy.
This isn’t the first time leadership has had to yank a bill from the floor this year due to the lack of votes. GOP leaders previously pulled legislation to overhaul border security and ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in January, as well as a No Child Left Behind reauthorization in February.
House Republicans managed to resurrect the abortion and education measures months later. The House barely passed the No Child Left Behind rewrite Wednesday evening in a tight 218-213 vote that nearly derailed on the floor.
Thursday marked the second time House Republicans had punted on the display of the Confederate flag.
Days after the Charleston shooting last month, the House voted to refer a measure that would ban the display of the Confederate flag around the Capitol complex to committee for review, instead of immediately passing or rejecting it.
Devin Henry, Tim Cama and Scott Wong contributed.
This story was updated at 1:47 p.m.