House GOP leaders block votes to restrict Confederate flag

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House GOP leaders opted against allowing votes this week on measures to restrict display of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of racially charged police shootings.

Two House Democrats, Reps. Jared Huffman (Calif.) and Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), submitted amendments to a 2017 Interior Department spending bill that would prohibit decorating graves in federal cemeteries with Confederate flags and would ban federal contracts within the National Park System to sell Confederate flags at any facility. Their proposals were not among the 131 amendments made in order by the House Rules Committee Monday night.

A fight over the Confederate flag has simmered in Congress since the racially motivated shooting last June at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., that fueled a nationwide push to restrict displaying the symbol.

{mosads}Any vote this week to limit the Confederate flag would have come days after the deaths of two African-American men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, in confrontations with police that reignited national furor over excessive use of force against people of color. And during what started as a peaceful protest in Dallas against police brutality Thursday, five officers were killed and seven more wounded by a gunman who allegedly was angry about the recent police shootings.

The Interior Department spending bill is expected to be considered on the House floor as soon as Tuesday.

Adoption of a similar measure by Huffman to limit showing the Confederate flag in federal cemeteries almost derailed last year’s version of the Interior Department appropriations bill.

Almost exactly a year ago, Huffman’s amendment passed quietly by voice vote without any opposition during late night floor debate on the Interior bill. But some Republicans, primarily those representing Southern states, learned about the amendment the next day after it had already passed.

Those Republicans demanded that Huffman’s amendment be stripped from the underlying spending bill. In the end, House GOP leaders opted to cast aside the entire Interior Department appropriations bill in order to avoid staging a vote in favor of displaying the Confederate flag as the nation was still reeling from the Charleston massacre.

House Republicans then ultimately decided to forgo consideration of any more individual spending bills after Democrats threatened to force more votes related to the Confederate flag. GOP leaders, under then-Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), were still allowing consideration of appropriations bills under an unusually freewheeling process that let members of either party to offer unlimited amendments without required notice to colleagues. 

This year, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) decided to clamp down on the amendment process for appropriations bills after Democrats forced votes on an amendment from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Many conservatives bolted from supporting an underlying Energy Department spending bill in June after Maloney’s amendment was adopted on a bipartisan vote, arguing that it would conflict with religious freedom rights.

The House Rules Committee, which acts as an arm of majority leadership in determining how legislation is considered on the floor, now cherry-picks which amendments to appropriations bills get votes. Most bills are considered in the House under a limited amendment process, but spending bills had been the exception until recently. 

Before Ryan’s decision went into effect, Huffman offered an amendment to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spending bill in May to prohibit the large-scale display of Confederate flags in cemeteries run by the agency. His proposal would have still permitted people to place small Confederate flags on individual graves on two days of the year: Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

No one spoke in opposition to Huffman’s proposal the second time around, either. But Republicans prevented it from passing by voice vote to avoid a repeat episode of last summer’s chaos.

Huffman’s amendment passed on a vote of 265-159, with 84 Republicans joining all but one Democrat in support. A majority of the House GOP conference, however, voted against it. 

In the end, Huffman’s amendment was left out of the final bicameral compromise measure that merges the two versions of the Veterans Affairs spending bill passed by the House and Senate.

Huffman blasted the House GOP for avoiding a vote on the Confederate flag amid calls for bridging racial divides. 
 
“In a week when most Americans are reflecting on our country’s need for racial reconciliation and trying to move forward, House Republicans are doubling down on our country’s racist past,” Huffman said in a lengthy, scathing statement late Monday night. 
 
“If House Republicans cannot support the movement to take down the Confederate battle flag on federal property, they should at least have the guts to cast their votes in public and let it be known to voters where they stand,” Huffman added. 

Huffman and more than 80 other Democrats sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald last week to take “immediate action” so that displays of the Confederate flag are restricted in national cemeteries. 

“We believe the Confederate battle flag has no place flying over U.S. property, especially not at VA national cemeteries, where families and loved ones go to pay respect to our nation’s military heroes,” they wrote.

House GOP leaders have taken action to limit displays of the Confederate image in the Capitol complex. Earlier this year, the House Administration Committee presented a compromise to remove the symbol from an underground subway tunnel connecting the Capitol and Rayburn House Office Building.

The tunnel had previously displayed the flags of the 50 U.S. states, which included the Mississippi flag that still contains the emblem. The committee announced that it would instead replace the flags with commemorative state coins. 

Updated 11:17 p.m.

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