It was a day of extraordinary emotion and theater on the House floor, as Republican leadership pulled a bill Thursday to avoid votes on a Confederate flag amendment and Democrats successfully took procedural maneuvers to force the votes anyway.
Shortly after Speaker John A. Boehner announced Thursday morning that the House would be delaying votes on an Interior-Environment appropriations bill so “adult” members of Congress could discuss how to deal with provisions governing the Confederate flag on federal lands, Nancy Pelosi used her position as minority leader to force an immediate vote on a privileged resolution that would remove all non-member-office displays of the Confederate flag on the House side of the Capitol.
There’s only one current flag — Mississippi’s — that would fit that criteria and Rep. Bennie Thompson, the lone black Democrat in that state’s delegation, had already offered a resolution to that effect. But Pelosi’s two sentence, 769-word resolution, which makes ample use of semicolons and the word “whereas,” was meant less as an attack on a state flag hanging in the Rayburn tunnel and more as a proxy vote on the Confederate flag itself.
House Floor Explodes Over Confederate Flag Resolution
As the clerk read the California Democrat’s proposal, Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Steve Israel of New York reached across a House floor aisle and gave Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee an enthusiastic low-five.
Democrats seemed to know they had hijacked the floor — not to mention the news cycle — and were putting Republicans in exactly the position Boehner had worked to avoid.
The floor itself was abnormally crowded. Democrats had just held a protest vote, with Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn making a motion to adjourn, and most members of the party stayed after the vote to cheer on Pelosi. Many Republicans stuck around, too, just to see what would happen.
Republicans were already displeased with Democrats taking time out of the day for the legislative shenanigan of a motion to adjourn. On his way to the vote, Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers told CQ Roll Call he had just arrived at his office and his staff told him “someone’s showing their butthole here.” But the House floor drama was just beginning.
Following the unsuccessful vote to adjourn, Pelosi offered her resolution, which was so punchy it even called out Boehner for offering a statement of support for South Carolina removing the Confederate flag.
Once Pelosi finished, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy took the floor. Over Democratic groans, the California Republican moved to refer the resolution to the House Administration Committee, functionally killing it.
But Democrats weren’t having any of that. Pelosi and other Democrats shouted over to McCarthy, asking if he would yield for a question. He would not.
To get to the vote on McCarthy’s motion to refer, first the House would have to vote on ordering the previous question, a procedural vote to end debate. When it came time to hold a voice vote on that matter, the presiding officer asked for the ayes. Republicans seemed to muster everything they could to shout their “ayes.” But when it came time for the nays, Democrats found the “This is Spinal Tap” setting of 11 to offer a resounding “No!”
Presiding officer Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was in the somewhat unenviable position of giving the vote to the ayes, and when he did, Democrats rose from their seats in the engineered outrage of the minority. They moaned, signaling disapproval that Simpson would give the vote to Republicans, first yelling “no,” then seeming to find a new rhythm and a new word.
“Vote! Vote! Vote!” Democrats chanted. Simpson again declared, “The ayes have it.”
Democrats probably would have continued chanting if Pelosi hadn’t asked for recognition to request a recorded vote.
But even then the show wasn’t over. After Democrats worked out what exactly they were voting on, they flooded the well of the House. Instead of voting by electronic device, Democrats went to the floor desk and grabbed red cards to more formally, and more visibly, vote no.
Normally, the red cards are used for members voting after time has expired and the electronic devices have been shut off. This time, however, they were used as a prop, as Democrats held them above their heads like soccer referees registering disgust, with one member whistling “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Ultimately, Democrats lost both the previous question vote, 238-185, and the motion to refer, 238-176. Rep. Curt Clawson of Florida was the only Republican to vote with Democrats, breaking GOP ranks on both votes.
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And while the vote won’t really be remembered for forcing Republicans to go on the record on the Confederate flag, it may stick in members’ minds because of the partisan rancor and congressional dysfunction that it clearly represented.
Democrats are mad at Republicans. Republicans are mad at Democrats. And nothing seems to be changing.
After the previous question vote, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith offered a statement.
“The Speaker offered a thoughtful and responsible way of dealing with this issue,” Smith said, seeming to refer to Boehner’s call for members to work out the issue behind closed doors, “and Pelosi responded with a cheap political stunt.”