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Congress votes to ban Confederate flags from VA cemeteries

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Dave Martin/AP

(Read caption) A Confederate flag in Mountain Creek, Alabama.

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Congress passed a proposal on Thursday that essentially bans Confederate flags from national cemeteries. With a 265-159 vote, the proposal makes it illegal to display the Confederate flag in Department of Veteran Affairs cemeteries – even on individual grave sites that honor soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, except on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

Introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman (D) of California, the proposal received support from 84 Republicans and all but two Democrats. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D) of Georgia, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against the amendment, while Representative Betty McCollum (D) of Minnesota voted "present."

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Huffman's proposal was added as an amendment to the Veteran Affairs spending bill, and it remains uncertain whether it will become law.

"Over 150 years ago, slavery was abolished. Why in the year 2016 are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?" asked Huffman. Few opposed the proposal during its floor debate, but Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia compared banning the Confederate flag to ISIS cultural cleansing.

"You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL. Don't be like ISIL. I urge you to vote NO," wrote Pete Sanborn, Westmoreland's legislative director, in a mass email. The missive was signed, "Yours in freedom from the PC police." Westmoreland, who distanced himself from the analogy, says Mr. Sanborn has been disciplined.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin supported allowing the vote, despite opposition from the majority of Republicans. "Last year it stopped the appropriations process in its tracks," he said about the vote. "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. And I think people are acknowledging this – this is the kind of conversation we've had all along with our members, which is tough votes happen in open rules."

Last year Huffman proposed a similar amendment to an Interior Department spending bill to limit Confederate flag displays in certain VA cemeteries. The proposal initially passed by a voice vote during a late-night floor debate, but upon learning about it the next day, some Republicans demanded it be removed from the legislation. House Republican leaders decided to kill the bill entirely rather than offer a vote to protect displaying the Confederate flag.

Increased sensitivity may come this year, as the amendment comes near the first anniversary of the mass church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Still, according to the Hill, Republicans have been "vehemently opposed" to Huffman's amendment. Huffman himself was disappointed his proposal didn't receive more support.

"While I appreciate that today's vote represents progress, it is shameful that two thirds of the House Republican Caucus voted against this commonsense measure," Huffman said in a statement. "Symbols like the Confederate battle flag have meaning. They are not just neutral historical symbols of pride, they represent slavery, war, lynchings, and tragedy. To continue to allow national policy condoning the display of the Confederate battle flag on federal property would be wrong and disrespectful to our past."