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Flag-Burning Amendment Comes Up Short in Senate

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The Senate has rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Congress to ban flag burning. The vote was agonizingly close, 66-34 in favor, just one vote shy of the two-thirds majority you need to send the amendment on to the states. The House had approved it last year.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports that backers brought up the amendment a week before Independence Day with an eye on the November elections.

BRIAN NAYLOR, reporting: In two days of debate, supporters said it was necessary and vital to amend the Constitution for just the 28th time, in order to protect the flag and the honor of those who fought under it.

Alabama Republican Richard Shelby:

Senator RICHARD C. SHELBY (Republican, Alabama): To desecrate the American flag, in my judgment, is to desecrate the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have sacrificed their lives to keep our flag flying. It is to destroy everything this country represents.

NAYLOR: But Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm fighting in World War II, argued that the right to dissent is exactly what American soldiers have always fought for.

Senator DANIEL K. INOUYE (Democrat, Hawaii): It angers me to see symbols of our country set on fire. This objectionable expression is obscene, it's painful, it's unpatriotic, but I believe Americans gave their lives in many wars to make certain that all Americans have a right to express themselves, even those who harbor hateful thoughts.

NAYLOR: It was a largely partisan debate that nonetheless created some strange allies. The Democratic leader, Harry Reid, supported the amendment, while the number-two Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, opposed it. McConnell was one of three Republicans who joined with 30 Democrats and one Independent to defeat the amendment.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin argued that Republican leaders brought the amendment to the floor, now, for strictly political reasons.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We are here because the White House and the Congressional Republican leadership are nervous about the upcoming elections. They want to exploit Americans' patriotism for their gain in November.

NAYLOR: Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts said there were plenty of other priorities the Senate should be addressing.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): In a summer when American soldiers are in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, while families at home are struggling with record gas prices, health care costs soaring, jobs being shipped overseas, and veterans - veterans who are defending country and flag, still go without the healthcare that they were promised, it is astonishing that we are here having this debate.

NAYLOR: The sponsor of the amendment was Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. He argued it wasn't about defending the flag versus the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Rather, he maintained, backers merely wanted to send a message to the Supreme Court, which in a pair of rulings in 1989 and 1990 struck down a Congressional flag-burning statute, and said that burning the flag is an expression of free speech.

Senator ORRIN G. HATCH (Republican, Utah): I was asked this afternoon by a large body of media, is this the most important thing the Senate could be doing at this time? I can tell you, you're darn right it is. What we would be doing is sending a message to the Court - you cannot usurp the power of the Congress of the United States. That's what's involved here.

NAYLOR: It was the second proposed constitutional amendment to lose in the Senate this month. A proposal to amend the Constitution to bar same-sex marriages was defeated. The amendments are part of a broader strategy to bring up a number of issues important to the Republicans' conservative base in the months leading to November's mid-term elections.

House Republicans yesterday announced what they labeled the American Values Agenda, and plan to debate legislation in coming weeks dealing with gun owners' rights, abortion, and the Ten Commandments. Democrats are also maneuvering for political advantage, pushing for votes to increase the minimum wage, and calling for major changes in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, hoping they can rally their supporters as well.

Bryan Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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