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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