WASHINGTON - A constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban flag-burning sailed through the House of Representatives for the fifth time yesterday and now moves to the Senate where supporters say a national wave of patriotism gives the measure a fighting chance.
The House voted 300-125 to approve the flag amendment, and supporters, mostly Republicans and veterans groups, are mobilizing to push it through the Senate before Flag Day on June 14, or the Fourth of July. President Bush has endorsed the amendment.
During two hours of passionate floor debate, supporters argued that flag-burning should not receive constitutional protection because it is not free speech. Opponents shot back that such acts are political expressions that are protected under the First Amendment.
Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the amendment's chief sponsor and a decorated pilot in the Vietnam War, who made the issue a top priority after Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, a New York Republican, retired from the House, warned that flag-burning can trigger violence.
"Patriotism demands more than standing on the House floor and stating we're all patriotic and we all support the troops," said Cunningham, a California Republican.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, said the flag "isn't simply a piece of cloth, but like a photograph of your family on your desk, it symbolizes certain unifying ideas that Americans hold sacred."
"Woven into the fabric of the flag is the collective memory of America from Bunker Hill to Baghdad," Hyde said. "As tombstones are not for toppling, churches are not for vandalizing, flags are not for burning."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and longtime foe of the amendment, scoffed: "There is no great epidemic of flag-burning. This amendment is clearly an amendment in search of a problem. We have never amended the Bill of Rights and we shouldn't start now."
Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, said there have been 115 incidences of flag desecration occurring in 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico since 1994.
The flag amendment would overturn the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in 1989 that laws banning desecration of the American flag are unconstitutional infringements on free speech.
The proposed amendment consists of a brief single sentence: "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that 80 percent of Americans favor such an amendment. All 50 states have approved measures expressing support for a flag amendment, virtually ensuring ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures if Congress ever sends the measure to them.
For that to happen, both the House and Senate would have to endorse the measure by two-thirds majorities and the president would have to sign the measure.
The House overwhelmingly approved the flag amendment in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001. The Senate fell three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in 1995.