State Politics

Confederate flag debate could snarl House Republicans

Ineva May-Pittman, right, of Jackson, Miss., leads a chanting flash protest around the Capitol rotunda in Jackson, Miss., Monday, April 4, 2016. About two dozen protesters marched for several minutes holding signs and chanting against a bill that would expand the Jackson airport board and against Confederate symbols used by the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Ineva May-Pittman, right, of Jackson, Miss., leads a chanting flash protest around the Capitol rotunda in Jackson, Miss., Monday, April 4, 2016. About two dozen protesters marched for several minutes holding signs and chanting against a bill that would expand the Jackson airport board and against Confederate symbols used by the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) AP

WASHINGTON -- A fight in Congress over Confederate flag imagery scuttled Republicans' efforts to pass individual spending bills last year, and they could be in for a repeat battle.

Republicans may have caught one break after the Mississippi flag, which features the Confederate battle flag, was removed along with 49 other state flags from a U.S. House hallway display, thanks to a construction project. But that removal is only temporary.

If Democrats want to resurrect the flag issue -- which became very charged last year after a white supremacist allegedly killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. -- spending bills are the perfect opportunity. The House debates those measures under an unusually free-wheeling process where any member can offer amendments with few restrictions.

One flash point may be a separate and unresolved debate over the display of Confederate flags on graves in federal cemeteries and the sale of Confederate flag merchandise in National Park Services stores.

Democrats say they won't try to scuttle Republican spending bills, but several may seek to force votes on the flag issue.

"While it is not yet clear what the appropriations process will look like this year, this issue of Confederate battle flag imagery remains unfinished business," Rep. Jared Huffman of California said in a statement. "I am optimistic that we can find a path forward to keep the Confederate battle flag out of national parks."

Last year, it was Huffman's amendment banning the flag from federal gravesites that roiled House Republicans. The amendment was first adopted by voice vote, but Republicans tried to walk it back after many of their members revolted.

Fearful of a backlash from an ugly, emotional floor debate on the issue only a few weeks after the Charleston shooting, House leaders pulled the underlying bill, which funded the Interior Department, and the appropriations process ground to a halt. Republicans delayed debate on spending bills until the end of the year, when they passed a broad omnibus spending measure with no Confederate provisions.

House leaders insist this year's debate will be an open one.

"We'll work through and consider amendments as they are offered," Matt Sparks, spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said in a statement.

One such amendment could come from Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who may rekindle his efforts to rid the U.S. House of his state's banner. His resolution, H. Res 341, introduced last year, which excluded only Mississippi flags displayed directly outside members' offices, was referred to the Committee on House Administration, where it has yet to receive a hearing.

"I am not sure if it will come up during appropriations season, but it might," said Thompson's spokesman, John Louis "Trey" Baker.

The construction in the tunnel between the U.S. Capitol and the nearby Rayburn House Office Building has provided a kind of reprieve from any real decision by Speaker Paul Ryan and other House leaders on what to do. The installation of a new fire alarm, sprinkler systems, energy-efficient lighting and ceiling is to continue through the end of 2016, beyond this current Congress, according to the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

After national outrage over the Charleston shooting, the Confederate battle flag was taken down from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C. Alabama also removed Confederate imagery from its statehouse grounds, while some retailers banned sales of images of the battle flag's Southern cross.

But some of that fervor has ebbed in the nine months since the shooting.

In recent weeks, for instance, plans by the city of New Orleans to remove prominent Confederate monuments have stalled, after intimidation and threats hindered the hiring of contractors to do the work. And earlier this year, Mississippi state lawmakers chose to not to act on calls to redesign the last state flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem, with its leaders saying there was no consensus to do so.

In Washington, the debate over the Mississippi flag at the Capitol may be on hiatus, but it's not over.

After Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Administration panel, wrote to Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers in September asking him to take the flag down, the tunnel renovation began and the banner came down on the House side. The Mississippi flag and other states' banners remain on a wall in a tunnel that links a Senate office building to the Capitol and there are no known plans to remove it.

"The flag is down and that is what matters," Brady said in a statement. "It is important it stays down. Should it appear again, I'll do whatever is in my power to take it back down permanently."

A spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, Erin Courtney, didn't respond to questions about whether the Mississippi flag would return to the tunnel wall after the work was finished.

Ryan's office also would not comment, referring questions to the House Administration Committee, which is chaired by retiring Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan.

A Republican committee aide to Miller, who asked not to be identified, said there are no plans to hold a hearing on Thompson's resolution. Republicans are waiting for Democrats to suggest names of those who might testify, the aide said. Democrats say Republicans are stalling.

Last year, then-Speaker John Boehner of Ohio called for an informal working group to look into all Confederate symbols at the Capitol, but that effort gained little traction.

The House's top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, eventually tried to use a procedure as party leader to bring an immediate vote on Thompson's measure, which would have restricted Confederate imagery. But McCarthy called for tabling the resolution, and on a voice vote sent it to the House Administration Committee for consideration.

"No studies, no hearings, no papers, no analyses are necessary to know that Mississippi's flag represents the last bastion of the confederacy and is a symbol that strikes fear into so many," said Baker, the Thompson aide. "The House Administration Committee has simply sat on the issue and tried to bury it."

Baker said the congressman "still feels the same -- the confederate imagery on the Mississippi flag represents hate, bigotry and a refusal by many to let go of an era of oppression and slavery."

Miller wrote last summer to Democrats on her committee that she wanted to hear from elected officials at the state level in Mississippi. She said in her letter that the Mississippi Legislature wouldn't meet until January.

While some Mississippi cities and counties, and some universities, have stopped flying the state flag since the Charleston attack, the Republican-controlled legislature didn't reach any agreement on redesigning the banner. And now attorneys are fighting in federal court in Mississippi over removal of the Confederate insignia in the state flag.

Meanwhile, in Washington, construction continues in the Rayburn subway.