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Correction to This Article
The June 28 Washington Sketch incorrectly reported that, during the Senate debate on a flag-desecration amendment, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) delivered a speech about a judicial nominee. The speech was about a former budget official who had testified before the Judiciary Committee.

Not Quite the Banner Day One Might Have Hoped For

Republicans, from left, Jim Bunning (Ky.), Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) stand up in the Capitol for a constitutional ban on flag burning, but only Hatch asserted that desecration of the flag is a burning issue.
Republicans, from left, Jim Bunning (Ky.), Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) stand up in the Capitol for a constitutional ban on flag burning, but only Hatch asserted that desecration of the flag is a burning issue. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

As the Senate's flag-desecration debate heated up yesterday and the sparks began to fly -- but before the smoke cleared -- the amendment's backers were asked a burning question: Is this the most important issue facing the nation?

The senators rushed to extinguish the very thought.

"I don't think anybody would say it's the most important," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

"No, no, not even close," said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who, like Lott and 57 other senators, nevertheless signed on as a co-sponsor of the amendment.

"Ha, ha, ha," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), another co-sponsor, replied, before disappearing through an unmarked doorway.

In fact, when the question was put to 19 Senate supporters of the amendment yesterday in the Capitol corridors off of the Senate chamber, only one -- amendment author Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) -- asserted that this was indeed the nation's No. 1 priority. And that was only after some serious goading.

So why is the Senate, which came within one vote of approving the amendment yesterday, giving the matter such prominence?

Backers of the flag amendment had planned to make the issue the highlight of their last week in town before the July 4 recess. But by midday yesterday, they were flagging. Originally planning to spend as many as four days of debate on the amendment, they decided to get rid of it before sunset. "This is the day we're dealing with it," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) vowed as he made his way to the chamber.

Out on a lethargic Senate floor, both sides were struggling to find speakers to fill the time for debate. Starting at 11 a.m., the lawmakers killed time with five quorum calls as they hunted for somebody to take the floor; one quorum call ended only when the senators decided it was time for lunch.

After a two-hour party lunch, Republican senators went to the microphone to talk about national security, not flag security. By late afternoon, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) gave up the flag talk entirely and gave a speech instead about a judicial nominee.

"It's not a burning issue," a wry Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) told The Hill newspaper's Jonathan Allen off the Senate floor. Smith, a backer of the amendment, betrayed no hint that his wordplay was intentional.

Nearby, Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) was practically running from the debate. Would he take a question about flag burning? "Uh, no," he said. He paused to reconsider, then walked away briskly. "No, sorry," he reaffirmed.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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