House Scraps Vote on Confederate Flag in Federal Cemeteries

House Scraps Vote on Confederate Flag in Federal Cemeteries

In this June 30, 2015 file photo, a Confederate flag flies at the base of Stone Mountain in Stone Mountain, Ga.  The House is about to put its members on record on whether Confederate flags can decorate rebel graves in historic federal cemeteries and if their sale should be banned in national park gift shops.  The vote comes after southern lawmakers complained that they were sandbagged two nights ago when the House voted — without a recorded tally — to ban the display of Confederate flags at historic federal cemeteries and strengthen Park Service policy against its sale in gift shops. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
In this June 30, 2015 file photo, a Confederate flag flies at the base of Stone Mountain in Stone Mountain, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

DAVID ESPO, Associated Press
ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 charged that Democrats had falsely accused GOP lawmakers of racism and said the proposal would merely have written Obama administration policy into law.

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.

Rather than accept any apology, Democrats attacked at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“These are these same House Republicans who voted for a party leader who once described himself as, quote, ‘David Duke without the baggage,’ ” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He referred to Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking leader.

For her part, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi offered legislation to remove all state flags containing any portion of the Confederate battle flag from the House side of the Capitol. Republicans prevented a vote on it by referring it to a committee — but Democrats slowed the tally by casting their votes manually instead of through an electronic tally system that is customarily employed.

At the same time, Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, accused Pelosi of a “cheap political stunt” after the speaker had called for a private talks on the issue. He said the bipartisan talks could potentially address Confederate symbols within the Capitol as well as at parks and cemeteries.

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.

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Eds: AP reporters Erica Werner and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Emily Wagster Pettus in Mississippi contributed to this story

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