The Senate last night joined the House in rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Congress and state legislatures to ban desecration of the American flag, following a highly partisan debate targeted at voters in upcoming senatorial elections.
With the House having killed the amendment last week, the Senate vote of 58 to 42 to pass the amendment -- nine short of the two-thirds necessary for approval -- was a largely symbolic and political exercise that drew sharp criticism from the amendment's foes.
Twenty Democrats joined 38 Republicans in voting for the amendment; seven Republicans voted with 35 Democrats against it.
While several who voted for a flag-protection statute in preference to an amendment last year supported the amendment this time, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) switched in the other direction, saying he had come to believe the flag "will be better protected, and the freedoms and values it represents will be better honored, by resisting this amendment."
Even though the House vote effectively doomed prospects for congressional action this year, Republicans insisted on a vote in the Senate, prompting charges by Democrats that the GOP was seeking to use the roll call in their fall campaigns against Democrats. Republicans counter-charged that Democrats were seeking to dodge political responsibility for opposing an amendment.
The votes in the two chambers were prompted by a Supreme Court ruling June 11 striking down a flag-protection law that Congress passed last year in hopes of satisfying earlier objections by the high court that such laws violate free speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
As the House has already decided the issue, "We will take a meaningless vote so that some campaign operatives can try to bludgeon senators who are willing to stand up for the Bill of Rights and vote against this amendment," complained Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).
When Democrats proposed an alternative in the form of a statute that would ban flag-burning aimed at creating a breach of the peace, Republicans retorted that Democrats were trying put up a smokescreen to shield themselves from voters angry at their refusal to support a flag-protection amendment.
Democrats were "adopting a fig leaf, or a flag leaf" in order to "give political cover to those senators who plan to vote against the amendment today," said Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
The statute, proposed by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), was rejected when the Senate, voting 51 to 48, upheld an objection from Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) that it was unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in the earlier flag cases.
Bumpers had argued that his proposal would outlaw the "most egregious" instances of flag burning while leaving the Bill of Rights untouched. Most Democrats supported it; most Republicans opposed it.
The Senate also rejected, 90 to 10, a proposal from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to prohibit the Supreme Court from considering further flag-desecration cases by passing a statute removing the issue from the court's jurisdiction.
An alternative flag-protection amendment, drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), was rejected, 93 to 7.
After the last vote, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a decorated Vietnam War hero who opposed the amendment, warned that the fight "reopened a wound . . . that will not heal easily" and said it could undermine consensus on major work still facing Congress this year unless both sides move to repair the damage.