ATLANTA - The controversy over the Georgia flag that's hanging over the 2001 General Assembly didn't take long to surface.
On Monday, the opening day of the session, the Senate's Democratic and Republican leaders jointly proposed a pair of public hearings to hear from all sides in the debate over whether lawmakers should remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state standard.
Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, and Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, urged their colleagues to tackle the issue head-on to avoid the black eye an economic boycott would give to Georgia's image.
Civil rights groups have threatened to launch a boycott after the 40-day session if lawmakers haven't voted to change the flag by then.
"The longer we put off taking on the state flag, the longer people from outside the state are going to try to divide us," said Mr. Johnson, mentioning civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton by name.
"The entire nation will be watching and listening to us," Mr. Walker said. "It is time to put this issue to rest once and for all."
Monday's proposal by the two Senate leaders came on the heels of an announcement late last week by an Atlanta lawyer that he will file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the flag.
Mr. Walker said he will introduce a bill today that would replace the current flag with the flag that flew over Georgia before 1956.
"My goal is to move the Confederate flag to a place of historic significance and to pass a bill that will have a flag that ... unites Georgia, not divides us," Mr. Walker said.
"We need to do away with the flag issue and bring (back) a flag that all Georgians can respect," added Rep. E.C. Tillman, D-Brunswick.
Many lawmakers don't believe the votes are there to change the flag, and neither Gov. Roy Barnes, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor - who presides over the Senate - nor House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, has shown any inclination to push the issue. Legislators from rural areas say the only comments they've heard from voters on the issue is to leave the design in place. But a series of rallies held in various cities across the state in recent weeks is building enthusiasm among many blacks to address the issue now.
House Majority Leader Larry Walker called the idea for public hearings premature.
"Let's see what happens in the next few days up here," said Mr. Walker, D-Perry. "We've only been here one day."
But the House majority leader, who is no relation to Charles Walker, is not averse to the concept of hearings. On Monday, he said he would like to see the General Assembly create a commission to hold hearings on the issue, presumably after the session.
Politically, the flag debate has more potential to wreak havoc on Georgia Democrats than Republicans because Democrats rely heavily on two groups of voters largely on opposite sides of the issue: blacks and rural whites, particularly in south Georgia.
With House Republicans prepared to sit on the sidelines, supporters of changing the flag welcomed Mr. Johnson's willingness to work with Charles Walker in the Senate.
"I just hope we can get the cooperation on the House side that appears to be gelling on the Senate side," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who already has introduced into the House the same bill that Charles Walker plans to file today.