House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday greeted the press corps with a cheerful “good morning” as he strode to the lectern in the chamber’s House Radio/TV Gallery studio for his weekly media briefing.
In prepared remarks, the Ohio Republican talked about entitlement reform, human trafficking, assistance for veterans and trade. He called Iran a “global menace.” Boehner upbraided President Obama about a strategy to fight ISIL. He spoke about the House’s Benghazi Committee.
And when Boehner concluded, reporters ignored most of the speaker’s boilerplate and promptly asked him about the Confederate battle flag.
Boehner may run the House but he can’t control events.
And this week, a debate about flying the Confederate flag at national cemeteries and displaying similar historic and state symbols in the chamber gurgled to the surface. It effectively hijacked any conversation about the issues on which Boehner wanted to focus.
What he and the Republicans faced was a perfectly-timed confluence of events, each doused with just enough political gasoline to engulf the House in a conflagration …
Ignited by just the tiniest spark..
The spark came Tuesday night as the House bore through a sleepy debate to fund Interior Department programs for the next fiscal year.
The legislation covers funding and policy for national cemeteries. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., offered an amendment to the bill to ban flying the Confederate flag at some federal cemeteries. After a brief debate, the House approved Huffman’s proposal, latching it to the rest of the legislation via “voice vote.”
A voice vote is when all members in the House chamber either shout yea or nay in favor of or in opposition of a proposal. This bypasses a formal roll call where all members come to the floor to vote electronically. But the result is the same. The skeleton crew on hand Tuesday night vocally voted to prohibit flying the Confederate flag at federal cemeteries.
“It looked like Democrats and Republicans were coming together,” said Huffman on the House accepting his amendment without a roll call. “Everyone was aware of what we were doing.”
Done. Fin. The end.
Huffman’s amendment lit a very short fuse on a highly combustible issue. That’s because the House Republican brain trust worried that including the amendment could jeopardize passage of the overall Interior bill. Some southern and conservative lawmakers could strip their support.
So Wednesday night, the House continued to debate the Interior bill.
Again, a bare-bones crew was on hand as Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, managed the measure. He then introduced what has been come to be known as the “Calvert amendment.”
It’s unclear who actually crafted the text of the amendment, which doesn’t refer to the Confederate flag. But adoption of the amendment would trump Huffman’s plan.
The House scheduled a vote on the “Calvert” amendment Thursday and planned to approve the entire spending bill later that day -- the same day the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.
Boehner may have talked about Benghazi and veterans issues and entitlement spending in his opening remarks. But he knew reporters were going to pepper him with questions about the “Calvert” amendment and the Confederate flag. And Boehner made no mention – until asked – about the biggest news of the day: the fact that as he addressed reporters, the GOP leadership jerked the Interior bill off the floor because of the Confederate flag melee.
There was concern about having enough votes to pass the legislation. But the introduction of the “Calvert” amendment to reinstate the existing policy -- and forcing lawmakers to vote on that issue as the South Carolina legislature lowered the flag -- proved just brutal optics for the GOP.
“You usually want to pull the bill before you make a mistake. In this case we did it after we made a mistake,” grumbled one senior House Republican about his party’s ham-fisted maneuver.
There are some questions why Huffman didn’t force Republicans into a tight spot on the Confederate flag when he offered his amendment Tuesday night. Demanding a roll call on Huffman’s plan would have forced GOPers to take a challenging vote. But the California Democrat said he didn’t ask for a roll call “by design.”
“It was like spiking the football,” Huffman said. “It would be partisan to demand a roll call vote.”
But then the GOP resurrected the issue with the “Calvert” amendment, further entangling matters when they scuttled the Interior bill amid South Carolina ditching the flag.
“It was a dumb idea to try to bring this up under these circumstances,” complained Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
Said Boehner: “I do not want this to become political football.”
Too late. This pigskin was laced-up with “Wilson” tattooed on the side.
“That bill is going to sit in abeyance until we can get some resolution,” Boehner said of the Interior measure. “I want members on both sides of the aisle to sit down, and let’s have a conversation about how to address what, frankly, has become a very thorny issue.”
Huffman balked at that notion.
“I think the Republicans should just tear off the Band-Aid now,” Huffman said. “House Democrats are not going to let this go. But I bet Republicans want to get past this, too.”
Huffman’s supposition worries Republicans. The House was supposed to consider the Financial Services appropriations spending bill next week. Those plans are now scrapped. The GOP knows Democrats would return with another version of the Huffman amendment, which could threaten passage of that measure.
Multiple sources tell Fox they think the House is effectively stymied from considering appropriations bills for the rest of the year because of the Confederate flag amendment problem.
“We have not seen the final chapter of this,” predicted Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana.
Dent said: “We’re the party that led the effort to lend the Confederacy and end slavery. Let the Republican party be the party that takes” the flag down.
But Dent’s aims aren’t going anywhere yet as Republicans don’t have a pathway out of this political box canyon. As a result, Democrats have the upper-hand politically and relished the schadenfreude.
House Democrats marched to the floor Thursday afternoon, pushing the second resolution in three weeks to order the House to “remove any State flag containing any portion of the Confederate battle flag” from the House side of the Capitol.
This is an effort to force Republicans to sweat -- but also remove the Mississippi flag from the tunnel running between the Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building. Mississippi’s flag features a patch of the Confederate flag posited in the upper left-hand corner. The flag is one of a collection of banners from all 50 states hung in the underground corridor.
The House voted to refer a similar resolution to the House Administration Committee last month. And rather than take a straight, up or down vote to strike the Mississippi flag, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., moved to refer the latest measure to committee as well.
This prompted an explosive moment of theatre in the House chamber. Republicans chanted “Vote! Vote! Vote!” at an ear-piercing volume. Some sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
“The ghosts of the Confederacy apparently invaded the House Republican Conference,” claimed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the Confederate flag issue is “something that the American people themselves will consider as they evaluate the agenda that's been advanced by Republicans in Congress.”
Republicans decried the Democrats’ stagecraft.
“The speaker offered a thoughtful and responsible way for dealing with this issue. (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi responded with a cheap political stunt,” said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.
But privately, several Republicans conceded they would have executed the same gambit had they been in the Democrats’ shoes with the Confederate flag coming down at the South Carolina statehouse.
Next week, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, hopes to force the House to vote on a resolution to trash the Supreme Court over its recent gay marriage decision.
The resolution will declare traditional marriage as “a union between one man and one woman” and argue that the court’s ruling “indefensibly perverts the definition of marriage.”
The plan also states have the right to refuse to abide by the high court’s edict.
“This couldn’t come at a worse time,” said one House Republican aide.
It’s unclear what topics Boehner may want to discuss at press briefing next week. Certainly Iran, funding Highway programs and even Benghazi might qualify.
Boehner may run the House, but he does not control events. There’s a lot of fuel in the congressional forest right now. Embers of the Confederate flag still smolder. The King resolution is dry kindling. And all it takes is a tiny spark to trigger another congressional inferno.