For some Republicans it is the perfect political storm: a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. flag that would put Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, running mate John Edwards and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle on the spot just a few weeks before the Nov. 2 elections.
The Senate GOP leadership has not scheduled a vote on the proposed amendment, but Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) noted last week that it is a high priority for veterans groups. Other Republicans say a vote is likely before the Senate's Oct. 8 target date for adjournment.
As senators, Kerry (Mass.), Edwards (N.C.) and Daschle (S.D.) have voted against the amendment and are described by colleagues as still opposed to it. But Kerry and Edwards, who rarely leave the campaign trail for Senate votes, are not expected to show up for the flag debate unless it appears their votes would be decisive.
As it appears now, the vote could be close enough to focus attention on Kerry and Edwards if they do not suspend campaigning to return for the roll call or if they do return and their votes turn out to be critical in defeating the amendment. Similarly, if Daschle turns out to cast the make-or-break vote, Republicans will almost certainly use it against him in his close race for reelection in South Dakota.
Some Republicans believe the three Democrats' votes against the proposal -- or absence when the roll is called -- can be used against them effectively at a time of war, terrorism threats and heightened patriotism. If Kerry and Edwards vote against the amendment or fail to show up for the vote, "they're going to have to explain why," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a key backer of the proposal.
But Democrats describe the GOP strategy as a cynical ploy that could backfire among voters who are fed up with "gotcha" politics and congressional inaction on other issues. They also say such divisive initiatives could dash any prospects for serious business being accomplished over the next month.
"All they're doing is setting the stage for 30-second ads for the campaign," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a foe of the measure.
Amendment supporters contend the flag deserves special protection as an important national symbol, while opponents, including Kerry, have argued that flag desecration can be punished under criminal statutes without tampering with the Constitution.
The flag proposal, which would empower Congress to ban desecration of the U.S. flag, would be the second GOP-sponsored constitutional amendment to come to a vote in the Senate this year. A measure to bar same-sex marriages drew 48 votes in a procedural showdown in July, nearly 20 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution.
The flag amendment has considerably more support, though it has yet to garner enough votes for passage, senators on both sides of the issue say.
When it was considered in 2000 (another presidential election year), the amendment got 63 votes, four short of the 67 needed when all 100 senators are present. Based on statements and previous votes, both sides count 64 senators in support of the amendment this year.
Without Kerry and Edwards, the number required for approval would drop to 66, or even lower if other senators also were absent. The reason is that two-thirds of the senators present and voting are required to amend the Constitution, rather than two-thirds of the full membership of 100. Kerry and Edwards could come under heavy pressure to return if it appears that the amendment might pass in their absence.
The House has already approved the amendment. If the Senate follows suit, the proposal will go to the 50 states for ratification. Approval by three-fourths of the states, usually by legislative action, is required to amend the Constitution.
In Memoriam: Two Democratic House members want the Capitol Rotunda to serve as a temporary memorial for the more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq.
But the idea of placing the dead troops' names and photos at the geographic center of the deeply divided Congress a few weeks before Election Day strikes some lawmakers as overtly political, and House leaders are responding warily.
Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Jim Turner (D-Tex.) proposed the idea last week to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Emanuel, noting that the Bush administration has barred news photos of military coffins returning to U.S. soil, said in an interview, "I'm asking them to make a gesture to the families" of the dead.
He said Hastert suggested a memorial event on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. That would be nine days after the election, and Emanuel is pressing the GOP leadership to act more quickly. Hastert's office said the speaker is weighing the request.
The Week Ahead: The Senate will try to finish work on the homeland security bill for next year. The House also will take up the 2005 appropriations bill for the Treasury and Transportation departments, which includes a 3.5 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees, and also legislation to penalize those who file "frivolous" lawsuits.
The Senate and House do not plan to conduct any votes after Wednesday afternoon in observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, although the Senate plans to be in session without votes through Friday.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.