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House OKs measure on flag desecration


WASHINGTON - The House approved yesterday, for the sixth time since 1995, a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to prohibit the physical desecration of the American flag. The measure now goes to the Senate, which has consistently rejected similar proposals.

But this year, supporters and opponents of the amendment say that passage in the Senate could be extremely close - within a vote or two.

Proposed amendments to the Constitution need approval by two-thirds of the House and the Senate before being sent to the states for ratification. When the Senate considered the flag issue in 1995 and 2000, the amendment received 63 votes, four shy of the threshold.

"We count 65 votes [in the Senate] based on voting records and talks," said Marty Justis, executive director of the Citizens Flag Alliance, which has been lobbying Congress to pass the amendment. "There are 54 official co-sponsors [of the bill], so we are targeting the other 46. We are going to target them until the vote."

Justis said that he would focus on the senators -including Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Mark Pryor of Arkansas - who were not in the Senate when the issue was last considered.

Clinton issued a statement late yesterday afternoon saying that while she supported federal legislation that would outlaw flag desecration, "I don't believe a constitutional amendment is the answer. ... Those few who would destroy a flag are not worthy of the response of amending our founding document."

Terri Ann Schroeder, senior lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, which opposes the amendment, said that she was concerned about senators who have said they would not support the measure but have never cast a vote on it.

"We cannot guarantee that we will win this vote," Schroeder said. "My concern is that we will wake up the next morning and say, 'Oops, did we just amend the First Amendment?'"

The one-sentence amendment - "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States" - would override a 1989 Supreme Court decision in a Texas case that found that flag-burning was a protected form of dissent under the First Amendment.

But Schroeder added that she was "excited and surprised" by the 286-130 vote in the House, only eight votes more than the two-thirds majority. "This is the closest vote in 10 years," she said.

In the Maryland House delegation, Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and Steny H. Hoyer, and Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest voted against the amendment. Democrats C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Albert R. Wynn, and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett supported the measure.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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