WASHINGTON - The narrow defeat of a proposal to ban flag desecration marks the second time in a month Senate Republicans have lost bids to amend the Constitution in ways designed to inspire social conservatives to vote in the midterm elections.
The 66-34 tally on the flag amendment Tuesday was one less than the two-thirds, or 67 votes, required to send it to the states for ratification. The House cleared the two-thirds threshold last year, 286-130.
Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the amendment read: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
A proposed amendment earlier this month to ban gay marriage suffered a more decisive defeat, killed on a test vote.
Winning isn't the only goal for those measures or other social policy proposals congressional Republicans will bring up this year in an effort to energize their base of voters.
House Republicans intend to hold votes this summer and fall touching on abortion, guns, religion and other priority issues for social conservatives, part of an attempt to improve the party's prospects in the midterm elections.
The "American Values Agenda" also includes the gay marriage amendment, a prohibition on human cloning and possibly votes on several popular tax cuts.
The flag amendment's cliffhanger defeat a week before Independence Day represented Congress' response to Supreme Court rulings in 1989 and 1990 that burning and other desecration of the flag are protected as free speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Senate supporters said the flag amounts to a national monument in cloth that represents freedom and the sacrifice of American troops.
"Countless men and women have died defending that flag," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., closing two days of debate. "It is but a small humble act for us to defend it."
Opponents said the amendment would violate the First Amendment right to free speech. And some Democrats complained that majority Republicans were exploiting people's patriotism for political advantage.
"Our country's unique because our dissidents have a voice," said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a World War II veteran who lost an arm in the war and was decorated with the Medal of Honor.
"While I take offense at disrespect to the flag," he said, "I nonetheless believe it is my continued duty as a veteran, as an American citizen, and as a United States senator to defend the constitutional right of protesters to use the flag in nonviolent speech."
Among possible presidential contenders in 2008, six voted yes: Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana and Republicans George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Frist, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and John McCain of Arizona. Five, all Democrats, voted no: Joseph Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Senate also rejected an alternative put forward by assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois. It would have made it against the law to damage the flag on federal land or with the intent of breaching the peace or intimidation. It also would have prohibited unapproved demonstrations at military funerals.
The House meanwhile passed by voice vote a measure that would bar condominium and homeowner associations from restricting how the flag can be displayed.
Sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., the resolution would prohibit those groups from preventing residents from displaying an American flag on their own property. The Senate is considering whether to bring up the measure this year.
It's unclear how many of the controversial bills might clear Congress and reach President Bush's desk. Still, political strategists argue that by bringing controversial issues to a vote, one party can broadly emphasize differences with the other on an issue such as abortion, and increase the determination of its own supporters to go to the polls.
For their part, Democrats maneuvered successfully last week for a Senate vote on raising the minimum wage. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the party's leader, said Tuesday they would "do everything within our power to stop a congressional pay raise from going through this year, and we're going to tie it to minimum wage."