GOP pulls Interior-EPA bill over Confederate flag clash

By Amanda Peterka | 07/09/2015 01:21 PM EDT

House leadership today pulled a fiscal 2016 spending plan for the Interior Department and U.S. EPA off the chamber floor after the introduction last night of a controversial amendment on the Confederate flag.

House leadership today pulled a fiscal 2016 spending plan for the Interior Department and U.S. EPA off the chamber floor after the introduction last night of a controversial amendment on the Confederate flag.

In his weekly press conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the bill would sit "until we come to some kind of resolution on this." The bill had been slated for a vote on final passage later today.

To protest the dust-up over the flag, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) unsuccessfully moved for the House to immediately adjourn.


Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, introduced the amendment in question last night as the House wrapped up debate on the $30.17 billion bill.

The amendment would have undone Tuesday voice votes by the House to remove the Confederate flag from cemeteries on public lands and to restrict the sale of the flag at National Park Service facilities. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), ranking member on the subcommittee, last night requested a recorded vote on the amendment that would have occurred later this afternoon.

The House has been debating the Interior-EPA bill since Tuesday. That day, Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) introduced three amendments to restrict the display of the Confederate flag at national parks and at cemeteries on public lands. All three amendments passed on voice vote.

This morning, Democratic members of the House took to the floor to protest the amendment. The Confederate flag has sparked widespread backlash since the killing last month of nine African Americans in a church in South Carolina. The amendment coincided with a vote in the South Carolina Legislature to remove the flag from the statehouse.

"It is appalling that House Republicans stealthily offered an amendment to the FY2016 Interior Appropriations bill last night that would require the National Park Service to continue allowing the display or sale of the Confederate flag — less than twenty-four hours after the House adopted amendments restricting its use," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement this morning.

In his press conference, Boehner said he believed that Confederate flag should not be at federal cemeteries.

"I think it’s time for some adults here in Congress to sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue," he said. "I do not want this to become some political football."

Calvert released a statement shortly after leadership pulled the bill, saying he regretted not "fully explaining his intent given the strong feelings" that members have on the issue. He said that he introduced the amendment at the behest of leadership.

"The leadership amendment would have codified existing National Park Service policy set by the Obama administration," he said in the statement. "Those Obama administration policies prohibit the sale and display of the Confederate flag on National Park Service properties, except when displayed in an educational context.

"To be clear," he added, "I wholeheartedly support the Park Service’s prohibitions regarding the Confederate flag and the amendment did nothing to change these prohibitions."

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the civil rights movement, slammed that argument.

"There’s not any room on federal property for the display of the Confederate battle flag," he said.

Leadership had expressed a desire to work through all appropriations bills in regular order. With today’s action, the future of the spending plan for Interior and EPA is in doubt.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said that the bill’s progress was likely halted "just to keep a circus-like atmosphere to happen" and that the bill would likely come back to the floor at some point.

"It’s a difficult bill always. It’s a challenging bill ideologically. And it’s a bill that will not get very many, probably no Democratic votes on," he said. "So if you start interjecting policies that are divisive inside the Republican conference as well."

The legislation overall would provide the Interior Department, EPA and related agencies with $30.17 billion, or $246 million below current spending levels and $3 billion below President Obama’s fiscal 2016 request for the agencies. EPA would take a hit of about 9 percent, or $718 million, under the spending plan.

The bill includes slight funding boosts for Interior agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, while funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service — which is housed within the Agriculture Department — would remain roughly level.

"This spending bill is finally drowning under the weight of its own extremism," Friends of the Earth climate and energy campaigner Lukas Ross said in a statement. "Apparently the only thing that matters more to House Republican leadership than sacrificing American’s air and water is defending the legacy of slavery. We can only hope that this bill stays dead and buried."