The timing of last week’s unexpected fight in Congress over the Confederate flag could not have been much worse for congressional Republicans. If GOP leaders don’t get a handle on the issue soon, the debate could undermine their position on their major agenda issues, particularly in the high stakes budget battle expected this fall.
Their plan was to strengthen their position in the budget standoff by passing a series of conservative spending bills to show that they could govern and to put negotiating pressure on Obama and Democrats in the budget process. But with the standoff over the Confederate flag, none of the spending bills are going anywhere immediately. That has created a roadblock with no clear way around it for Republicans, all due to the party’s reluctance to abandon the flag entirely.
The way the Confederate flag has been injected into and stalled the budget process says as much about the increasingly bitter budget process as it does about the larger issues of race and “heritage.” It’s not that race and competing versions of history aren’t at stake. They still are. But the budget process itself was ripe for something like this to derail it.
According to Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, this is a problem of the Republicans’ making, as the GOP has sacrificed what was once a bipartisan process in passing spending bills, by pushing spending proposals filled with provisions deliberately toxic to Democrats and President Obama.
“That leaves Boehner in a very tough position in getting the bills through the House,” Ornstein explained in an interview with TPM, as the speaker must keep on board hardcore Tea Party Republicans who would oppose almost any spending bill that doesn’t entirely demolish domestic programs.
“What it means is he has to accommodate people he would really rather not accommodate. And what happened in this case of course he didn’t have the votes and several southern Republicans basically said, ‘You want our votes? You’re going to have to do something on the Confederate flag.’”
In this case, the votes Boehner needed was on the Interior Department spending bill. Just a week ago, it looked on track to pass the House. It included Democratic amendments banning the flag on certain federal lands, seemingly aligned with the national shift on the symbol since a white supremacist allegedly took the lives of nine African Americans in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Those restrictions were added with no controversy and passed by a voice vote last Tuesday. Members of both parties were shocked, however, when the House GOP leadership made an effort late the next night to reverse those Democratic measures. The backlash was so immediate and intense that Republicans were forced to withdraw the Interior spending bill from the floor.
Democrats accused Republicans of using the Confederate flag ban reversal to assuage hard righters who would have preferred that the Interior bill dismantled the EPA entirely. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) admitted keeping the anti-Confederate flag language could have cost them 100 Republican votes on the bill.
Not only is the fate of the Interior spending bill now in jeopardy, but Rogers said that the flag debate “could be a problem” for his plans to pass 12 appropriations bills this summer, according to Politico. The appropriations process has been ground to a halt, Politico reported, until GOP leadership decides how to handle the issue.
Seizing the political opportunity, Democrats upped the stakes, demanding that they be given a vote on a measure that would remove Confederate symbols including the Mississippi state flag from the U.S. Capitol. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) first introduced the measure last month and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought a similar motion during Thursday’s fallout. Both were referred to committee, where they are not expected to see much action.
“It remains our hope that they will be able to deal with those resolutions in an expeditious manner,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, said.
So far, the only evidence of any reach across the aisle on the issue was a private huddle between McCarthy and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), one of the chief flag critics, that was a reported on by the AP and others. Lewis later said that there wasn’t any discussion of a formal working group to address the flag issue, and if there was, he wouldn’t join it.
“I don’t want to volunteer myself for anything. … I have enough work to do,” Lewis said, according to the Hill.
The alternative is that Democrats could continue to use the amendment process to put Republicans on the spot on the issue.
“Of course House Democrats are not going to let this issue go, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), according to the AP. He rejected the idea that more “discussion” was needed.
“I think the Republicans should just tear off the Band-Aid here and get on with this,” Huffman, who sponsored one of the initial measures to remove the flag from federal grounds. “A few of their members are going to vote in support of the Confederate battle flag, I think we all know that now, but the overwhelming majority of the House is going to do the right thing.”
“They’re now at a point that if they can’t bring these bills to the floor because Democrats will offer these embarrassing amendments,” Ornstein said.
“It suddenly became a much different symbol then it had been, where it was a despised symbol but it hadn’t become a national focal part,” Ornstein said. “The second part is the colossal tone deafness of the Republicans in the House in not realizing what a firestorm this would create. Or if they did realize it, feeling that they were caught in box canyon because of the way they approached the spending issue in the first place.”