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South Carolina House Opens Debate Over Confederate Flag

The South Carolina House started deliberating a proposal that could remove the banner from the Capitol grounds, as soon as the end of the week.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina House opened debate over the future of the Confederate flag Wednesday, deliberating a proposal that could remove the banner from the Capitol grounds, possibly before the end of the week.

Lawmakers are under pressure to act after the state Senate passed its own measure, which is supported by Gov. Nikki Haley. If approved, it would consign the flag to the state's Confederate Relic Room.

But some House Republicans planned to offer amendments to the Senate bill that would preserve some kind of symbol in front of the Statehouse to honor their Southern ancestors.

One of them, Rep. Mike Pitts, said to banish all flags from the site would be akin to erasing history, including that of his family members in Laurens County and the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia.

On the House floor, Pitts talked about a black colleague, Rep. Lonnie Hosey, and how they bonded over the shared memories of military service.

"I'm willing to move that flag at some point if it causes a twinge in the hearts of my friends," Pitts said. "But I'll ask for something in return."

Pitts said his favorite amendment proposes flying the flag of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers regiment, a blue banner similar to the state flag with its Palmetto tree and crescent moon but with a wreath around the tree. Similar art is etched on a wall inside the Statehouse, Pitts said.

Pitts did not share all his amendments Tuesday, but The Associated Press was able to obtain copies of the more than two dozen proposals.

The House is expected to debate a measure Wednesday that would remove the flag from the Capitol grounds.John Bazemore / AP

One would put the flag issue to a popular vote. Another would allow the rebel banner to fly only on Confederate Memorial Day in May, and a third would replace the Confederate battle flag with a different banner.

Other amendments appear more like parodies than serious alternatives to the Senate bill: One would fly the U.S. flag upside-down above the Statehouse dome. Another would remove all of the monuments at the Statehouse, regardless of whether they honor Confederates.

If House members back the Senate bill, Gov. Nikki Haley could quickly sign it into law, potentially bringing the flag down within days.

Any change to the Senate bill is unacceptable to the 46 Democrats in the 124-member House — a critical number because some Democrats will have to support any bill to take down the flag to reach the two-thirds threshold required by law, Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.

Rutherford said any flag that goes up beside the monument to Confederate soldiers "will be the new vestige of racism."

If the House amends the Senate bill, the Senate will have to agree with the changes or lawmakers will have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee, possibly delaying action for weeks. Several senators said the lopsided 36-3 final vote on the flag shows they do not want their bill to change.

"As strong as the support was, it would be absolutely foolish" to attempt to amend the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Larry Martin said.

If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, or the House rejects the Senate bill, the flag debate would probably be dead for this year.

After the flag was pulled off the Statehouse dome 15 years ago, it was called a settled issue. The banner was instead moved to a monument honoring Confederate soldiers elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.

But the flag debate regained urgency last month after state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other black people were fatally shot at a historic African-American church in Charleston. A white gunman who police said was motivated by racial hatred is charged in the attack.