WASHINGTON – Retreating under pressure, House Republicans scrapped plans for a vote Thursday on allowing the display of Confederate flags at Park Service-run cemeteries after Democrats protested furiously that the banner celebrates a murderous, racist past.
“What exactly is the tradition of the Confederate battle flag that we’re supporting?” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. challenged supporters of the proposal, shortly before the GOP leadership announced its decision.
“Is it slavery, rape, kidnap, treason, genocide or all of the above?”
No Republican rose to respond, although some officials privately accused Democrats of falsely accusing GOP lawmakers of racism.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio said it was time for “adults here in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address the issue.”
Democratic protests aside, the vote had been slated for a politically awkward time – hours after the South Carolina Legislature decided to remove the Confederate flag from a pole on the grounds of the State capitol.
The decision abruptly halted debate on legislation providing funds for the Interior Department and related agencies. But the political significance was more far-reaching than an annual spending measure, marking the latest in a string of developments relating to the Confederate flag in the House.
Earlier in the week, lawmakers decided by voice vote and without controversy to ban the display of the Confederate flag in Park Service-run cemeteries.
But GOP leaders soon became concerned that the overall spending measure might fail – Democrats oppose it because they want more spending and some Republicans were unhappy with the prohibition on the flag.
That led to plans to reconsider the prohibition in a vote hurriedly set for afternoon – and a highly unusual statement by the measure’s chief Republican sponsor after the subsequent decision to reverse course.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., and chairman of the panel with jurisdiction over Park Service funding, said the now-abandoned proposal “had been brought to me by Leadership at the request of some southern” GOP lawmakers, and also would have written into law existing National Park Service regulations approved by the Obama administration.
At the same time, he said he regretted not telling Democrats in advance about his plans.
Privately, some Republicans judged Democrats harshly, accusing them of seizing on the issue to portray GOP lawmakers falsely as racists.
Whatever the political fallout, the now-defunct proposal would have permitted the limited display of the Confederate flag at Park Service-run cemeteries in states that observe a holiday commemorating the Confederacy, and only at the graves of rebels who died in the Civil War.
In line with a Park Service memorandum from 2010, it would have affected 10 graveyards, including four in Tennessee, three in Virginia and one each in Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia.
Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said one of the Confederate’s grave was at Andersonville cemetery in Georgia and two each were at Shiloh in Tennessee and Vickburg in Mississippi.
Among the 20,000 graves at the Vicksburg National Memorial park in Mississippi are two that hold the remains of Confederates, according to Ray Hamel, a park ranger at the site. He said both men – one from Texas and one from Arkansas – died in a nearby Union hospital and were mistakenly buried in the U.S. cemetery when it was established in 1866.
Hamel said that on national Memorial Day at the park, volunteers place small a small American flag by the gravesite of each U.S. soldier, and the two Confederate graves are decorated with the national flag of the Confederate States of America, with three wide bars – red, white, red – and a blue canton corner with a circle of 13 white stars.
Ironically, Kupper said nine confederates rest in graves at Gettysburg, Pa. The state does not observe a holiday in memory of the Confederacy.