House votes to restrict Confederate flag in national cemeteries

The House approved a Democratic proposal on Thursday to limit the display of the Confederate flag in national cemeteries. 

The amendment to a spending bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction projects passed 265-159. A total of 158 Republicans opposed the amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), while 84 Republicans joined all but one Democrat in supporting it.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a centrist who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was the only Democrat to vote against the amendment. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) voted “present.” 

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed support for allowing the vote despite opposition from a majority of his conference.

“Last year it stopped the appropriations process in its tracks,” he told reporters at a Capitol news conference after the vote.

“What changed is we have to get through these things, and if we’re going to have open rules and appropriations, which we have, which is regular order, people are going to have to take tough votes. And I think people are acknowledging this — this is the kind of conversation we’ve had all along with our members, which is tough votes happen in open rules.

“People have to get used to that fact. That’s the way regular order works,” he added. “People realize the last thing we should do is derail our own appropriations process.”

{mosads}Shortly after midnight on Thursday, Huffman offered his amendment to prohibit the large-scale display of the Confederate flag in cemeteries run by the VA, such as flying the banner over mass graves. It would, however, still allow families to place small Confederate flags on individual graves on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

“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 while unveiling his amendment.

No one spoke in opposition to Huffman’s amendment during floor debate. 

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) initially tried to offer an amendment to modify Huffman’s proposal. But after nearly five minutes of hurried discussion among Republicans that temporarily halted proceedings, Mulvaney ended up withdrawing his amendment.

Behind the scenes, some Republicans vehemently pushed against Huffman’s amendment. A top staffer for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) compared the effort to ban the Confederate flag to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists engaging in cultural cleansing.

“You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL. Don’t be like ISIL. I urge you to vote NO,” Westmoreland’s legislative director, Pete Sanborn, wrote in a missive provided to The Hill, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

He signed the email as “Yours in freedom from the PC police.”

Westmoreland sought to distance himself from his aide’s argument and said Sanborn has been disciplined for the mass email.
“I hold my staff to the highest standards and I am deeply disappointed by my staffer’s poor judgment. This unprofessional language is not tolerated and is distracting from the real issues Congress is working on. The staffer has been reprimanded and I assure you it will not happen again,” Westmoreland said in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes nearly a year after the racially motivated shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. It stands in contrast to how the party approached the issue in the days after the shooting.

Huffman offered a similar amendment last year to an Interior Department spending bill that would limit the display of the Confederate flag in certain national cemeteries. It encountered no opposition during late-night floor debate and passed without fanfare by voice vote.

But some GOP lawmakers, primarily from Southern states, learned about the amendment the next day after it had it already passed. The vote count for the underlying Interior Department spending bill subsequently became shaky as those Republicans demanded the amendment be stripped from the legislation.

House GOP leaders ultimately decided to scrap the bill altogether rather than stage a vote to protect flying the Confederate flag on the same day that the South Carolina House voted to remove the banner from its state Capitol grounds. They further decided to stop bringing appropriations bills to the floor entirely since Democrats threatened to continue offering amendments regarding the Confederate flag.

Democrats have the ability to force votes on the Confederate flag because House GOP leaders choose to consider individual appropriations bills under an unusually freewheeling process that allows members to offer unlimited numbers of amendments. 

Republicans touted the use of the process as a return to regular order upon taking the majority in 2011. But it also makes it easier for the minority party to force politically risky votes that leadership may otherwise try to prevent.

This year, Republicans were more prepared to handle Democrats’ measures to limit the display of the Confederate flag. While Mulvaney ended up not offering a counter-amendment early Thursday morning, he and other Republicans ensured that Huffman’s proposal didn’t pass by voice vote and result in a situation like last summer.

House Democrats may continue offering more amendments to upcoming spending bills regarding the Confederate flag. But if the vote on Thursday is any indication, such efforts won’t necessarily stall the GOP’s plans to move appropriations bills over the next two months.

Democrats have now forced two votes on the Confederate flag in less than 24 hours. 

The first came shortly before final passage of the defense authorization late Wednesday night. Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) offered a procedural motion that would have added in his proposal to take down the Confederate flag at the Citadel, a military college incidentally only about two miles from the church where the Charleston shooting took place.

That motion failed along party lines, which typically occurs with procedural votes regardless of their content. 

Thursday’s vote came a month after the House Administration Committee unveiled a compromise to remove the Confederate image from an underground subway connecting the Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building.

Democrats led by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the sole African-American member of his state’s delegation, forced multiple procedural votes on taking down the Mississippi flag, which remains the only state to have the Confederate image in its flag.

Under the new compromise, the subway will soon display commemorative state coins instead of the flags of the 50 U.S. states.

Updated at 1:41 p.m.

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