A proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning drew sharp criticism from Senate opponents Wednesday, as supporters insisted the flag deserved special protection as the national symbol.
The amendment, which passed the House overwhelmingly last April, is several votes short of the 66 needed in the Senate, amid questions about how it would be applied in practical terms.
Eight senators remained undecided, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters.
Opponents argue that passage by Congress and ratification by the states would trample the right of free speech under the First Amendment and could lead to disputes over interpretation of the tersely worded measure.
“When I think of the real problems of this nation right now … I’m appalled,” Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., said on the Senate floor. “Everybody here in this body knows that this is pure, sheer politics.”
Saying there were only four flag burnings last year and none this year, Bumpers asked, “And we’re going to tinker with the First Amendment? Our cherished Bill of Rights?”
Senate backers of the amendment, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., were thwarted in their bid to bring it to a vote Wednesday. Earlier this year, when he started his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Dole promised the American Legion there would be a vote this fall.
Opponents led by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., objected Wednesday to starting formal debate on the proposal until the Senate acted on 18 nominations for ambassadorships - including that of former Tennessee Sen. James Sasser as envoy to China - that have been pending for months.
“Before we move to amend the Constitution … we need to tend to the business of carrying out our duties as they’re set out in the Constitution,” Bingaman said. “Everyone has to concede that this is not an urgent matter. … There is not an epidemic of flag-burning going on in this country.”