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.
If wrapping oneself in the flag were a form of desecration, senators on both sides of the issue would have been in some trouble yesterday. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called a midday news conference outside his office with two colleagues. They stood in front of three gold-trimmed flags, eagles atop each.
"The American flag represents everything this country stands for," Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) told the assembled. "I am ready to go on this amendment!"
But is this the most important issue facing the nation? Frist was uneasy. "You know, it's interesting, in terms of the question of why, why, why now," he began, then decided to rephrase the question. "Is it important?" he asked. "You bet it's important."
Fortunately for Frist, his Democratic counterpart was struggling on another flag-bedecked stage. "I think we have some misplaced priorities," Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) said, condemning the amendment at a news conference. "I don't think it's the right time to bring up the issue." Reid seemed a bit sheepish as he acknowledged, "I'll vote for it."
So if he thinks bringing it up is such a bad idea, why is he voting for it? "I'm confident it won't pass," Reid explained.
Hatch alone seemed unburdened of doubt. "This sends a message to the [Supreme] Court like it's never been sent before!" he said. "In my opinion, there's nothing that would supersede this in importance."
Nobody would join Hatch in assigning the "most important" label.
"I know how y'all use those questions," said a suspicious George Allen (R-Va.).
"I'm not going to put it 'the most important,' " said Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).
"I wouldn't call it the most pressing," demurred John Cornyn (R-Tex.) How about top 10? "I can't give you a top 10," Cornyn again dodged.
Out on the floor, the debate was getting sloppy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a supporter, displayed a poster of Iwo Jima. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), an opponent, countered with a poster of Kid Rock wearing a flag.
Was this any way to amend the Constitution? Hatch went to the floor to steel the chamber's resolve. "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?" he told his colleagues, answering the question, "I can tell you: You're darned right it is."
An hour later, Hatch fell a vote short of his goal. But there was no time to wallow: Oregon's Smith was already on the floor, hailing Oregon State University's college baseball World Series victory.
"Mr. President," Smith announced with an enthusiasm that eluded him during the flag-burning debate, "I stand before you a Beaver believer."