House slated for contentious vote on the Confederate flag
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House Democrats will force a vote Thursday morning on whether the Confederate flag should continued to be displayed in national cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The move resurrects a contentious debate that erupted nearly a year ago after the racially motivated shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., last June.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) revived a similar amendment that he offered to an Interior Department spending bill last year that ultimately derailed the entire appropriations process due to divisions among Republicans over the Confederate flag.

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His latest amendment to the 2017 bill funding the VA and military construction projects, offered shortly after midnight on Thursday, would prohibit the large-scale display of the Confederate flag in VA cemeteries such as flying the banner over mass graves. However, it would still permit families to place small individual Confederate flags on graves for limited amounts of time two days a year.

Huffman wants Republicans to go on the record about whether they support flying the Confederate flag after they avoided doing so last year.

Hours earlier, Republicans rejected a Democratic attempt late Wednesday night to amend the defense authorization so that the Confederate flag could no longer be flown at the Citadel, which, incidentally, is about two miles from the Charleston church where last year's shooting occurred.

"My hope is they just step up and face it," Huffman told The Hill in a phone interview around 1 a.m. Thursday.

Unlike last year, Republicans appeared somewhat more prepared for Huffman's latest Confederate-related proposal, which he unveiled with Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). 

After Huffman offered his proposal during floor debate, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) tried to move an amendment to modify it. But debate halted for close to five minutes as Republicans engaged in what Huffman described as "animated conversation" out of the C-SPAN cameras' sight.

Mulvaney later withdrew his amendment. And ultimately, no one ever spoke in opposition to Huffman's proposal. But the Republicans who apparently readied themselves for Huffman's amendment ensured this time that it didn't pass quietly by voice vote.

Huffman told The Hill that Mulvaney only described the amendment to him as establishing a "geographic limitation."

By contrast, Huffman's Confederate amendment to last year's Interior Department bill sailed through on a voice vote after encountering no opposition at all during late-night floor debate. But some Republicans, primarily from Southern states, balked at the amendment upon learning about it the next day after it had already passed. 

With the nation still reeling after the shooting in Charleston, GOP leaders opted to forgo the entire spending bill instead of opening themselves up to a politically damaging vote showing their members voting in support of the Confederate flag. Such a vote would have taken place on the same day that the South Carolina House voted to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds.

If the vote on Huffman's amendment goes forward, it'll be the second time in less than 24 hours Democrats have forced a roll call related to the Confederate flag. Democrats used a procedural maneuver shortly before passage of the defense authorization late Wednesday to call attention to Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn's (D-S.C.) proposal to take down the Confederate flag at the Citadel. That motion failed along party lines, which is typical for procedural votes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tied the procedural vote to the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, saying in a statement that "whatever their empty talk about being shocked by Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE’s hateful rhetoric, House Republicans’ votes utterly expose the reality of their own discriminatory agenda."

A vote on Huffman's proposal would divide Republicans between those who view the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage and those who, along with virtually all Democrats, see it as an emblem of racism.

"Over 150 years ago, slavery was abolished. Why in the year 2016 are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?" Huffman asked during floor debate.

The process under which House GOP leaders have considered appropriations bills since taking the majority in 2011 may now be working against them. Under what's known as an "open rule," lawmakers of either party can offer an unlimited number of amendments with no required advance notice to their colleagues or the public.

So, unlike with most other bills, leadership cannot prevent the minority party from offering politically risky proposals meant to put the majority in an uncomfortable position.

House Republicans managed to pass six of the 12 individual appropriations bills last year before Democrats discovered they could force the GOP in a political box canyon with the Confederate flag. This year, the Confederate flag issue has returned with the first 2017 spending bill brought to the House floor.

The House is still slated to resume consideration of amendments to the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill at 9 a.m. But Huffman said he and other Democrats are preparing themselves for GOP attempts to block a vote on his amendment.

"We're certainly going to sleep with one eye open," Huffman said.