In the Senate, Waving the Flag Amendment

By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Just in time for the election season, the Senate is plunging into a volatile (and some say cynical) issue for the first time in six years: whether to amend the Constitution so that Congress can ban desecration of the American flag.

Even though many voters may be hard-pressed to remember the last time they saw Old Glory being torched, the Senate will devote a good chunk of the week to the proposed amendment, which appears to be within a vote or two of passage. Adoption will require a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes if all 100 senators are present. In 2000, the amendment fell four votes short.

The House embraced the bill last year, 286 to 130. Should the Senate follow suit, three-fourths of the states would have to ratify it to make it the 28th Amendment.

Debate began yesterday, with senators recalling that the Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that flag-burning is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The ruling did not sit well with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who told an empty Senate chamber yesterday: "Government exists because of the people. . . . Yet for too long, some unelected judges have mistakenly concluded that it is the courts that have exclusive dominion over the Constitution."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) differed. "The danger of this amendment is that it would strike at the values the flag represents and the rights that have made this nation a vibrant democratic republic in which we have enjoyed freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom to think as individuals," he said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said the GOP is pushing the amendment to fire up its base this fall. "The real issue isn't the protection of the American flag," he said. "It's the protection of the Republican majority."

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) cast the debate in loftier terms. "Many Americans have come to see the flag as a sacred symbol of our nation and its values," he said. "Those who dislike American values have the right to express their opinions even when they are offensive. But I do not believe that the right to desecrate a symbol like our flag belongs in the same category."

Frist Tests Waters for Estate Tax Cut

The flag debate will dominate floor action today, but Frist may also take up House-passed legislation deeply cutting -- but not eliminating -- the estate tax. That would set up a vote Thursday on whether to proceed to the bill, and another showdown on what Republicans call "the death tax."

The legislation, which passed the House last Thursday, would exempt estates worth as much as $5 million -- $10 million for couples -- from taxation indefinitely. The tax rate on estates worth more than the exemption level up to $25 million would be set at the same rates that apply to capital gains -- now 15 percent but scheduled to rise to 20 percent in 2011. The tax for estates worth more than $25 million would be twice the capital gains rate. The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the estate tax cut would cost the government $279 billion in revenue over the next 10 years.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) added a $940 million tax break for the timber industry to pressure Washington state's two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to go along.

Frist aides have made clear they will move forward only if they have 60 votes sewed up to overcome a filibuster. "When we go for it, we want the best chance to succeed, not another takeoff that flies into the side of a mountain," said Eric Ueland, Frist's chief of staff, referring to a vote this month on full repeal that fell three votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate.

At this point, they don't have the votes. Democrats are balking, saying the bill may be better than full repeal but still represents an enormous gift to the super-wealthy. Some Republicans, such as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio), continue to fret over the price tag. And Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who championed the search for a permanent estate tax compromise that would fall short of full repeal, is questioning whether he can support legislation that would keep the top tax rate on inheritances as high as 40 percent.

Both sides say Frist and his allies are working extremely hard to get to 60 votes. "We're making a list, checking it twice, trying to figure out who's naughty and nice," Ueland said.

House to Vote on Offshore Drilling Ban

In the House, Republicans will once again focus on energy, this time offshore oil and gas exploration. Legislation scheduled for a vote Thursday would lift a 25-year ban on energy exploration as close as 100 miles from the coastline while permanently banning exploration nearer to shore.

As voters rev their engines for the Fourth of July weekend, Republicans hope to portray Democrats as obstructing legislation to lessen dependence on foreign oil and lower energy prices. But Florida and California lawmakers from both parties have staunchly opposed offshore drilling, which Democrats portray as hardly worth the environmental price.


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