Jim Clyburn reviving Confederate flag debate in Congress

An honor guard from the S.C. Highway Patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds on July 10, 2015, in Columbia.

WASHINGTON — The fight over the Confederate flag — and its place in South Carolina — has returned to Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, as the House Armed Services Committee began its hours-long slog through over 100 amendments to the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, panel Democrats were quietly preparing to force a vote to deny Reserve Officers’ Training Corps funds to any military university that displays the Confederate flag.

The only university that currently falls into this category is The Citadel.

“You’ve had students, there are Citadel students, who have been asking for that flag to come down,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said Wednesday afternoon, “and I think it’s a damn shame that state officials in South Carolina continue to fly in the face of their black people. And that’s what’s happening here.”

Clyburn isn’t a member of the Armed Services Committee. But the third-ranking House Democrat — and highest-ranking black legislator in Congress — told The Post and Courier he had recently gone to the committee’s top Democrat, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, with his intentions to submit the amendment for consideration once the defense measure comes before the full House.

On Tuesday night, Clyburn said, Smith told him he would offer the amendment at the committee level, as well. By press time Wednesday night, the committee had still not debated the amendment. The most controversial provisions are typically saved until the very end, and before midnight Wednesday there were still countless other issues to consider into the early hours of Thursday morning.

Smith’s amendment, which Clyburn said would exempt current Citadel students on ROTC scholarships, would come with complications.

Following revelations that the June 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church was motivated by racism, the S.C. Legislature voted to remove the divisive symbol from the Statehouse grounds. The flag, which originally flew above the Statehouse dome starting in 1961, was relocated next to the monument in 2000.

The Citadel Board of Visitors also voted last summer to remove the Confederate Naval Jack banner from the rafters of its Summerall Chapel. However, the Citadel is legally prevented from moving ahead with that plan unless the State House and Senate vote to amend existing law, the so-called Heritage Act. The legislative session is drawing to a close and it hasn’t happened yet.

Clyburn said he doesn’t believe the existing statute applies to the Citadel’s situation since the flag was put up as a gift from an alumnus, not by state action.

And if it is against the law to take down the flag, Clyburn said officials should change the law, not use it as an excuse for inaction.

“That’s the same argument not to integrate schools, isn’t’ it?” Clyburn said. “Okay.”

Even if the amendment is adopted in the committee, there is no guarantee it would survive after House-Senate negotiations on a final defense bill later this year.

But even apart from all the technicalities, the Confederate flag debate is a poisonous one for Republicans, particularly those from Southern states where many constituents still hold sentimental attachments to the Civil War-era imagery. For dozens of these lawmakers, it’s a lose-lose situation, and on countless occasions, Republican leaders have tried to shield them from having to take difficult votes.

Last summer, the same day the Confederate flag was scheduled to come down in Columbia, the U.S. House had a near-meltdown over the issue. In the process of lengthy floor debate on an appropriations bill, Democrats had quietly won support for an amendment barring Confederate flags at federal cemeteries. On the final day of floor consideration, right before debate was set to conclude, Republican leaders teed up a vote to reverse that victory, hearing enough lawmakers were otherwise prepared to oppose the bill entirely.

Democrats revolted. Clyburn said he would stay in Washington to fight the GOP rather than travel back to Columbia to attend the historic event. He and fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus helped orchestrate a public relations nightmare for Republicans, who ultimately were forced to pull the bill. Sensing their advantage, Democrats promised to offer Confederate flag-related amendments to every other appropriations bill for the rest of the year unless Republicans agreed to take up legislation to update the Voting Rights Act — another political minefield for the GOP.

The House never considered another spending bill for the remainder of 2015.

If the Armed Services Committee doesn’t adopt the amendment, and Clyburn tries again on the House floor, there could be repeat situation.

At that time, the speaker of the House was Ohio Republican John Boehner, who was locked in a near-constant struggle of trying to govern while also trying to appease an unruly flock.

The current speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, already has begun to carve out a different path for dealing with Confederate imagery on Capitol grounds. A few weeks ago, under his leadership, the decision was made to remove the state flags that line one of the office building hallways and replace them with reproductions of state commemorative coins. That means House grounds will no longer display the Mississippi state flag, which incorporates the “stars and bars.”

“If in the Capitol we are going to have symbols, we will have symbols that do not divide,” Ryan said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.