House GOP halts bill banning Confederate flag after Southern lawmakers protest

Republicans in Congress stumbled into the Confederate flag debate Thursday after Southern lawmakers protested a proposal to put new restrictions on displaying the banner on federal parklands, launching the party into a conversation many leaders would have preferred to avoid.

The uproar in the House rippled across Washington after an amendment banning Confederate flags -- sponsored by a California Democrat, Rep. Jared Huffman -- was attached to an otherwise routine budget bill making its way through Congress.

Southern Republicans protested the Californian's move and threatened to pull their support for the broader $30-billion bill, which funds the Interior Department and other related federal agencies, including the national parks.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) tried to salvage the situation by putting forward a compromise by another Californian, the Interior Committee's chairman, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona).

But the compromise backfired and was seen as too weak by Democrats, who accused the GOP of protecting what many view as a racist Southern symbol of slavery.

The battle over the flag was heightened by the racially-motivated shootings last month in Charleston, S.C.

"When you hear me say that congressional Republicans have an agenda that is out of step with the vast majority of Americans, this record at least in part is what I'm referring to," said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Earnest criticized House Republicans as having "values and priorities that lie elsewhere."

The debate is one that Republicans in Congress had been hoping to avoid as the party continues to reel from perceptions that it is not inclusive or tolerant of minority groups, especially in the aftermath of presidential candidate Donald Trump's disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants.

But the uproar, coming late Wednesday just as the South Carolina legislature was taking steps to remove its Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds, proved an easy target for Democrats to attack the GOP as out of touch.

Boehner and McCarthy had no choice but to halt further proceedings on the legislation Thursday. The speaker called for an informal bipartisan task force to develop a compromise.

"I actually think it's time for some adults here in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue," Boehner said Thursday.

Boehner lamented that the issue had become a "political football," and promised talks in "coming days."

Rather than ban the flag outright from national parks and gift shops, as Huffman's amendment proposed, the GOP compromise from Calvert would have mirrored directives from the White House that limit the Confederate flag's display at national parks largely to the Confederate Memorial Day. The administration directive also gives park superintendents authority to remove Confederate items from gift stores.

Democrats, though, preferred tougher language, as proposed by Huffman.

"The Calvert amendment would shamefully challenge the emerging national consensus that government should not countenance such a symbol of hatred and intolerance," said the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York.

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