The recent debates over Confederate symbols have been limited almost entirely to states and local communities. Federal policymakers can show some leadership on the issue -- and many have -- but the decisions about Confederate flags, statues, road names, and license plates aren't made in Washington, D.C.
This week, however, congressional Republicans found a way to trip over the issue anyway.
The developments started rather innocuously. Late Tuesday, after just a couple of minutes of debate, the U.S. House passed a measure sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) that would "prohibit the display of Confederate flags on graves in federal cemeteries." Earlier in the day, the House also instructed the National Park Service to no longer sell Confederate flag in gift stores.
The measures passed by way of voice votes, and the developments didn't generate much attention. That is, until last night, when Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) announced a dramatic change: a Republican amendment was set to undo what the House had just done.
Facing pressure and brewing media interest, late this morning, House GOP leaders were forced to pull the underlying bill altogether. Politico reported:
House Republican leadership was forced to pull a spending bill from the floor Thursday after an uproar over the Confederate flag threatened to sink the entire measure.
This one's a doozy, so let's unpack what happened.
At issue is an Interior Department spending bill, which was already considered controversial because it includes funding for the EPA -- and the right does not care for the EPA. But some Southern Republicans complicated matters, telling the leadership they were prepared to help kill the spending measure altogether over the anti-Confederate amendments.
Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, for example, said in a statement, "Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence. Members of Congress from New York and California cannot wipe away 150 years of Southern history with sleight-of-hand tactics."
House Democrats, not surprisingly, responded with apoplexy over the GOP majority reversing course, defending Confederate flags, and attempting to scrap two amendments that passed without controversy just two days ago.
Faced with growing turmoil, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pulled the spending bill from the floor. Boehner told NBC News' Luke Russert that the spending bill "is going to sit in abeyance until we come to some resolution."
The Republican leader added that he does not want to see the issue become a "political football." If today's floor fight is any indication, it would appear Boehner's too late.
South Carolina lawmakers managed to get this right, but the same cannot be said about Congress.
Postscript: It's worth noting that while Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) was the member who announced the proposed reversal, he was not the one pushing for the change. Calvert said he introduced the amendment at the behest of the House Republican leadership, which was acting under pressure from Southern lawmakers.