WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Thursday yanked an Interior Department spending bill off the floor after Democrats prevented GOP attempts to add a provision that would have allowed Confederate flags at federal cemeteries.
The maneuver sparked outrage from Rep. Betty McCollum. McCollum, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s Fourth Congressional District, said her “no” vote on the spending bill, which she said “panders to polluters,” shifted to “hell no” after Republicans pushed the flag amendment.
The sale or display of Confederate flags on National Park properties and cemeteries is prohibited, except in a historical context.
Some Republicans said they supported removing the flag from the Capitol grounds in South Carolina, but drew the line at restricting people’s rights at private grave sites, even if those sites are on public property.
“When Republican leadership put forward a last-minute amendment that would allow for the display and sale of Confederate flags in the national parks … which invokes memories of racism and a painful period in our country’s past, I found myself shocked, outraged and disappointed,” McCollum said in a speech Thursday on the House floor. “The people in Minnesota sent me here to strive for what they strive for every day: to build a better, stronger America.”
The amendment would have permitted displays of the flag in federal cemeteries on Confederate memorial day, which is celebrated in nine states. It would also have allowed the sale of the flag on some souvenir items.
The House floor drama came the same day that Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C.
GOP House Speaker John Boehner abruptly canceled the Interior vote — hoping to halt the debacle, which was threatening to get ugly. Democrats yelled “No!” in the chamber.
Several Democrats, including Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called the flag a symbol of overt racism.
“I urge people to listen not to me, but to the secessionists themselves,” Ellison said in an emotional tone, a large poster board of the Confederate flag beside him.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pushed her own measure to ban all Confederate flags at the U.S. Capitol and House office buildings.
All 50 state flags, including Mississippi’s — which includes a small Confederate “Stars and Bars” — fly in a tunnel under the Capitol complex.
House Republicans, including Minnesota Reps. John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer, voted against consideration of Pelosi’s motion.
Emmer said he voted against her measure because he wanted it to go through proper committee procedures.
“I do not believe that federal funding should be used to support or promote the Confederate flag,” he said in an e-mail. “However, today’s vote was simply so the Pelosi resolution would go through the typical legislative process.”
Troy Young, a Kline spokesman, said his boss commends South Carolina “for having the courage to remove the Confederate flag from its state Capitol grounds” and wants an honest conversation about what the flag symbolizes.
“While this issue needs to be discussed and debated, what happened today was procedural and it’s no wonder Minnesotans shake their heads in disgust with Washington when some members of Congress prefer petty, partisan games,” Young said.
Democratic political operatives were already spinning the events late Thursday, sending out e-mails asking why Minnesota Republicans support Confederate flags on U.S. Capitol grounds.
California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who started the fracas Wednesday when he pushed to allow Confederate flags to be flown at national parks and cemeteries, issued a somewhat rueful statement Thursday.
“Looking back, I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially my ranking member Betty McCollum, before offering the leadership’s amendment and fully explaining its intent given the strong feelings members of the House feel regarding this important and sensitive issue,” he said.