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House approves ban on Confederate flag in national cemeteries (+video)

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Bruce Smith/AP

(Read caption) Confederate flags are seen at the plot where crew members of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley are buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston., S.C., on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. Congress on Thursday approved an effort to restrict the use of the flag at national cemeteries.

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Congress voted to restrict the use of Confederate flags at national veterans cemeteries on Thursday, a decision that comes as America has increasingly been reassessing its relationship with the controversial symbol.

There was a heated battle behind the scenes, but the proposal, an amendment to a spending bill for veterans and military construction projects, came with support from 84 Republicans and all but one Democrat.

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Considering the flag's history, it was a rare show of compromise on an issue that has traditionally divided many Americans: Many continue to view it as a symbol of Southern pride, while others argue it is inexorably racist, a reminder of the oppression of slavery. 

"Over 150 years ago, slavery was abolished," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D) of California, who sponsored the amendment. "Why in the year 2016 are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?"

Representative Huffman's amendment makes it illegal to drape or hoist the flag prominently in national cemeteries, including at mass graves. Those who hope to mark an individual grave with the flag can do so with a small one, but only on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

Publicly, no one spoke in opposition to the proposal on the House floor, The Hill reports. That's a contrast to the ultimately successful effort to remove a Confederate flag from the State House grounds in South Carolina following the massacre of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston last year.

On Thursday, 158 Republicans voted against the proposal. Some lobbied against it privately: a top staffer for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia, for example, likened the effort to ban the flag to terrorists from the Islamic State destroying cultural landmarks in the Middle East.

"You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL. Don't be like ISIL," Pete Sanborn, Representative Westmoreland's legislative director, wrote in an e-mail ahead of the vote. (ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is an alternate acronym for the group.)

He signed the e-mail "Yours in freedom from the PC police."

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A spokesman for Westmoreland later sought to distance the lawmaker from Mr. Sanborn's comments, The Hill reports.

Late Wednesday night, Democrats also attempted to force a procedural vote on a proposal to take down the Confederate flag at the Citadel, a military college near the church where the Charleston shooting took place. That effort ultimately failed, divided along party lines.

But the proposals point to a view on the flag that's continued to evolve, though it's unclear whether the Senate will also approve the amendment. Less than a year ago, the effort in South Carolina proved more contentious, The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported:

The call for the flag to come down marked a turning point not only for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, a past flag defender who pleaded for the legislature to take it down, but also for many white Southerners. Indeed, it was largely white South Carolinians, including GOP lawmakers, who pushed for the flag’s removal, The State newspaper pointed out Friday....

For all the heartache and wrenching debate over the past three weeks, the furling of the Confederate flag and its removal to what will become a multimillion-dollar shrine at South Carolina's "relic room" in Columbia suggested a new beginning for a state long bogged down by racial divides.

Huffman also proposed a similar amendment in Congress last year. It initially passed by a voice vote, but was then scuttled after opposition from some Republican lawmakers.

This time was different. "Last year it stopped the appropriations process in its tracks," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters after the vote on Thursday.

"What changed is we have to get through these things, and if we're going to have open rules and appropriations, which we have, which is regular order, people are going to have to take tough votes," he said.