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By Jamie Self, The State (Columbia, S.C.) (TNS)

COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina legislators Tuesday made debating whether to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds an urgent matter.

Grieving the lives lost in last week’s racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church, the South Carolina House voted 103-10 to debate the flag this summer. The now-45-member state Senate voted by voice to join the debate — with only three Upstate senators.

That debate could begin as early as next Tuesday, the first day lawmakers could return to Columbia to accept or reject Gov. Nikki Haley’s vetoes to the state budget. Haley has until midnight Monday to issue vetoes.

But House and Senate leaders also could wait until after the July 4 holiday weekend to call members back, giving lawmakers time to decide where they stand on the flag’s location.

A survey by The State found a majority of state senators, 26, saying they would vote to remove the flag. Among House members surveyed, 27 said they would vote to remove the flag.

While many legislators declined to state a position, only two representatives and three senators indicated they would vote against moving the flag.

Calls for removing the flag — seen as a sign of Southern heritage by some, and racism by others — have been mounting since a white Richland County man shot and killed nine black Americans in a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last Wednesday.

Police say 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who was arrested and charged, confessed to the slayings, called a hate crime by authorities. Among the dead were the church’s pastor, Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

Bills to remove the flag were introduced Tuesday in both chambers.

“Today was a great step forward,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, a Republican, referring to the Senate’s move to fast-track a bill to remove the flag from where it flies, near the Confederate Soldier Monument, and place it in the Confederate Relic Room at the State Museum.

Leatherman, a senator since 1981, said he supports removing the flag — a decision he said he made after hearing from residents in his district who were moved by the horrific shooting in Charleston.

“It’s time to deal with this and move on,” Leatherman said.

Senators agreed to let the flag-removal bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, skip the committee process, meaning they could give it a key approval shortly after returning to Columbia.

Two bills that would remove the flag also were introduced in the House and referred to its Judiciary Committee.

GOP House Speaker Jay Lucas said he might call lawmakers back Tuesday to take up vetoes and start work on the flag legislation. But representatives also could be asked to return later, he said, adding the House wants to resolve the flag debate as soon as possible.

Momentum inside and outside the State House has been building toward removing the Confederate flag.

Haley on Monday joined increasing numbers of public officials and business leaders calling for the flag’s removal. The effort has gained support from prominent public officials nationwide, including President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential hopefuls.

Wal-Mart and NASCAR are among the corporate giants disavowing the flag.

Inside the State House, some lawmakers expressed concern about outside pressure forcing a debate on the flag — a point of bitter argument in the past — while they are grieving the loss of a colleague and a friend.

Others were springing into action.

The Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate, a minority in both bodies, agree the flag needs to come down.

His voice trembling, Democratic state Rep. Joe Neal implored lawmakers Tuesday to “put aside partisan bickering and understand that all of us are human beings and all of us deserve to be treated like human beings.”

“If ever there’s going to be a day when South Carolina can rise and be the state that it claims that it is, this is the day,” Neal said, receiving an ovation.

A small number of Republicans in both GOP-majority chambers said they would oppose moving the flag.

GOP State Rep. Bill Chumley said the state resolved the flag issue in a compromise 15 years ago, lowering the flag from the State House dome and placing it on the grounds.

Other Republicans have not weighed in, saying that now is the time for healing.

“It’s a time of grieving. That’s what we’re doing now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, a Republican, who said he has been praying about the issue.

“I ask South Carolina and the nation to continue to grieve. I … saw the comments of forgiveness from the victims’ families,” Peeler added. “I must confess to you, I’m not there.

“I couldn’t forgive him. I don’t forgive him. I don’t. I can’t. I hope I live long enough to be that kind of Christian, but I’m not there yet.”

(c)2015 The State (Columbia, SC). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at