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South Carolina lawmakers return for Confederate flag debate

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    The General Assembly returns Monday to discuss Gov. Nikki Haley's budget vetoes and what to do with the rebel flag that has flown over some part of the Statehouse for more than 50 years.

COLUMBIA, S.C. >> The depth of support for bringing down the Confederate flag gets its first test in the South Carolina Legislature this week as lawmakers return to Columbia to come up with a specific plan.

The General Assembly returns Monday to discuss Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget vetoes and what to do with the rebel flag that has flown over some part of the Statehouse for more than 50 years.

Several bills have been filed, but details such as when to bring down the flag, whether to put another flag in its place and what kind of ceremony should mark the removal are not specified.

And if South Carolina takes any lesson from the 2000 debate that brought the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome to its current location at a nearby monument to Confederate soldiers, it is that minor details can trip things up.

The Senate will debate the flag bill first, and Sen. Larry Martin expects several amendments discussing whether to keep the flagpole and put a different flag on it. Suggestions have included the U.S. flag, the South Carolina flag and a flag that may have been flown by Confederate troops but doesn’t have the same connections as the red banner with the blue cross and white stars.

"We’re going to be about as thorough listening to folks as we can be," said Martin, a Republican, after walking out of the governor’s office Monday morning. "But we need to get to a vote today."

The Senate opened its discussions on the flag with an amendment to put the rebel banner’s future up to a public vote. Debate was expected to last several hours.

The governor, business leaders, the Legislative Black Caucus and civil rights leaders are against flying any flag that flew over the Confederacy.

"There is no good-looking Confederate flag. It all stands for the same thing — secession," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Outside the Statehouse, dozens of protesters began to arrive Monday morning. Some called for the flag to come down. Others, such as Nelson Waller in his rebel flag tie, said the state was giving in to Northern liberals and civil rights activists.

Waller carried a sign that read "Keep the flag. Dump Nikki!" Two decades ago, he carried a "Dump Beasley" sign after then-Gov. David Beasley made an unsuccessful attempt to get the Confederate flag off the Statehouse dome.

A few years after Beasley’s push and a round of stories that embarrassed the state’s business community, a consensus emerged that South Carolina — the last state to fly a Confederate flag on its Capitol dome — needed to pull down the banner. But 15 years ago, lawmakers spent months discussing whether to build a healing pool, display authentic flags in glass cases as a history lesson or include the Confederate flag in a circle of flags of historical significance. The compromise was reached a few weeks before the session ended.

The killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month by a gunman police said was motivated by racial hatred and photographed holding Confederate flags and regalia has created new support for removing the flag from the Statehouse entirely.

A survey of lawmakers by The Post and Courier newspaper, the South Carolina Press Association and The Associated Press asking lawmakers how they intend to vote after Haley’s call to remove the flag found at least 33 senators and 83 House members agreed with her, reaching the threshold of a two-thirds vote needed under the law to alter the flag’s position.

Some powerful Republicans have not said how they will vote. Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler has not taken a public position. Neither has House Speaker Jay Lucas.

There are a few voices for the flag.

Republican State Sen. Lee Bright is trying to raise money with Confederate flag bumper stickers with the message "keep your hands off my flag." He also wants the state’s voters to decide whether the flag is moved.

"In South Carolina, we know what this flag symbolizes: resistance against a federal, centralized power that far overreached its constitutional limits. It proudly symbolizes states’ rights and constitutional liberties, which many have fought and died for," Bright wrote in a statement on his website.

But plenty of lawmakers who held their nose and accepted the 2000 compromise are not willing to make any deal this time, said Gerald Malloy, a Democrat who joined the Senate in 2002.

"This is not a time to talk about compromise," Malloy said. "That flagpole should be replaced with some beautiful green grass."

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