By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday abruptly canceled a vote on a measure that would allow the Confederate battle flag to be flown in cemeteries operated by the National Park Service, after an outcry by Democrats on the House floor.
The House canceled consideration of a fiscal 2016 spending bill for the Interior Department, which funds the park service. An amendment to that bill, by Republican Representative Ken Calvert of California, was pending and would have continued to allow the use and sale of Confederate flags in national parks.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said he wanted a bipartisan discussion on how to move forward on the issue. "That bill is going to sit in abeyance until we can come to some resolution on this," he said of the Interior Department spending bill.
The Civil War-era flag, nicknamed the "Stars and Bars," is viewed as a symbol of slavery and racism by some in the United States and of Southern heritage by others.
Democrats had flocked to the House floor earlier on Thursday to rail against the amendment, displaying the Confederate battle flag as they did so.
"The Confederate battle flag is nothing more than a symbol of racial hatred and oppression," declared Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a black Democrat from New York. "I stand here with chills next to it."
Jeffries said the Republican amendment, if passed, would reverse the House's actions earlier in the week, when lawmakers adopted by voice vote three Democratic amendments to restrict the flag's display on National Park Service land.
But Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa said such symbols were protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech.
"I grew up in the north," King said, but added: "The Confederate flag always was the symbol of the pride of the south."
The slayings of nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina last month sparked an intense dialogue over the legacy of slavery and its symbols, after photos surfaced of Dylann Roof, the white man charged in the shootings. They showed him posing with the Confederate battle flag on a website displaying a racist manifesto.
In Charleston, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley planned to sign a bill on Thursday afternoon to remove permanently a Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds.
Boehner said he did not want the Confederate flag issue to become a "political football." But Democrats were unwilling to let the matter drop even after the vote was canceled.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi proposed that any State flag containing any portion of the Confederate battle flag - other than a flag displayed by a lawmakers' office - be removed from the Capitol grounds. Republicans used their majority to sideline her proposal to committee.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, and Jonathan Oatis)