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Senate to vote on flag desecration amendment
WASHINGTON - The Senate is casting a crucial vote on what could become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a measure giving Congress the power to prohibit physical desecration of the flag.

The vote scheduled for late Tuesday was expected to be close, with supporters saying they had the two-thirds majority, or 66 senators, needed for approval, but opponents saying it was too close to call.

The House last June approved, 312-120, a broader amendment that gives Congress and the states the power to determine what is unlawful desecration of the national symbol.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chief sponsor of the amendment, deleted reference to the states Monday in a bid to overcome objections that the states would enact conflicting laws. "We have made a major concession" to help pick up the needed votes, he said.

Hatch's new version reads: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

If the Senate adopts that language, the House and Senate will have to work out a final version in a conference committee.

Congress has proposed more than 10,000 amendments since the Constitution went into effect in 1789, but only 27 have been ratified. The Bill of Rights comprises the first 10.

The 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, lowered the voting age to 18. The 27th, stating that at least one election must take place before congressional pay raises go into effect, was ratified in 1992, more than 200 years after Congress proposed it as part of the original Bill of Rights.

The last time Congress sent an amendment to the states was in 1978, a measure to give the District of Columbia statehood. It died after seven years because the required three-fourths of state legislatures failed to ratify it.

Hatch argued that the flag amendment is needed to overturn two Supreme Court rulings, in 1989 and 1990, that flag-burning was a protected First Amendment right. "Isn't it ridiculous that the American people are denied the right to protect their unique national symbol in the law?," he asked.

But opponents said flag-burning was extremely rare - they cited figures showing only three incidents in 1994 and zero in 1993 - and that the flag amendment was a direct affront to First Amendment rights to free speech.

"Although the flag may stand alone it should not and it cannot stand above our most cherished freedom of speech," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.).

Biden is offering revised language that would remove the word "desecration," which he said was too subjective, and empower Congress to bar the burning, mutilation or trampling of the flag, regardless of intent.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), the leading GOP critic of a constitutional amendment, is also proposing a substitute version that simply bars desecration by legislative means rather than changing the Constitution.

The Senate also planned to vote on an attempt by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) to attach to the flag amendment language requiring that the federal government balance its budget by 2002.

Hollings' amendment was not expected to win support in its current form. Earlier this year, the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds needed for a balanced budget amendment. The House this year also failed to pass a Republican-backed constitutional amendment limiting how long members of Congress can serve.

The amendment is S.J. Res. 31.

By The Associated Press

Warren S. Apel