Members of Congress ready to unfurl latest plan for flag amendment

Tuesday, February 23, 1999

Congressional lawmakers are poised to tackle the flag-burning issue again as 238 House members — just 52 shy of two-thirds — have already embraced the latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the flag.

Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., John Murtha, D-Pa., and John Sweeney, R-N.Y., plan to introduce the flag-desecration resolution together before the House tomorrow afternoon. They have scheduled a news conference at 4 p.m. on the grassy triangle near House chambers.

“It will pass,” said Julie Pope, spokeswoman for Cunningham. “We've already got about 240 sponsors, but that grows each day. I'm sure it will pass with no problems.”

Pope said the amendment ran into its only obstacles last congressional session in the Senate, “so we're hoping another House vote will give the resolution some momentum in the Senate.”

The Senate vote promises to be a close one; supporters and opponents agree that the resolution is about two votes shy of the 67 needed to pass. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Max Cleland, D-Ga., will reintroduce the resolution in the Senate in coming months.

In 1995, the House voted 312-120 on a flag amendment, which then failed in the Senate by three votes.

Last session, the House voted 310-114 in support of an amendment, but the measure died in October when Senate leaders failed to get unanimous consent to bring the proposal to the floor.

Amendment supporters say Congress needs to amend the Constitution because courts in the past have struck down federal and state statutes protecting the flag. They often cite the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson, in which the Supreme Court found a Texas law banning flag-burning to be unconstitutional. The court threw out a federal flag-protection law in U.S. v. Eichman the following year.

If the 106th Congress approves the current resolution, the amendment will go to the states for ratification. Approval by 38 state legislatures needed to ratify the amendment is almost certain since 49 states have already passed resolutions in support of the measure.

The proposed amendment reads: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

“Now that Congress is not focused on the impeachment of the president, it can focus on real issues,” said Daniel Wheeler, president of the Citizens Flag Alliance, a leading group supporting the amendment.

“The important thing is that, whether it passes in the Senate or whether it doesn't, we've been gaining votes every year,” Wheeler said. “And we're not going away.”

Although the resolution has already won significant support in the Senate, amendment opponents say that House opposition shouldn't be written off.

Catherine Le Roy, public policy director for People for the American Way, said: “It passed the House last time by only a 20-vote spread. I don't think they are going to do that well this time. I think the 1998 elections put a dent in that.”

LeRoy said that more lawmakers now understand that such measures to protect the U.S. flag effectively prohibit speech and violate the First Amendment rights of free expression. She predicts a “hard-fought battle” in the House.

“There's a clear signal we need to be getting on to other issues,” LeRoy said. “Three strikes, in most games, and you're out. It isn't going pass. We should move on to other things.”