A constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration is headed toward its best chance of passage in 15 years with a cliffhanger vote later this week in the Senate.
As debate opened Monday, supporters and opponents alike said the amendment is within two votes of being sent to the states for ratification. Supporters called the debate a week before Independence Day a chance for the Congress to salute veterans.
"I think of the flag as a symbol of what the veterans fought for, what they sustained wounds for, what they sustained loss of limbs for, and what they sustained loss of life for," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Many veterans, he said, see "disrespect for the American flag as disrespect for them, as disrespect for the sacrifices that they and their buddies have made."
Opponents, who include the Senate's second-most senior Republican and Democrat, say a flag amendment would violate the First Amendment's free speech protections as the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 1990.
And some Democrats called the debate just the latest example of the Republican majority spending Senate time on an issue with the aim of scoring points with conservative voters in the midterm elections. Earlier this month, the Senate spent three days debating a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages to see it fall 11 votes short.
"The Constitution is too important to be used for partisan political purposes; and so, in my view, is the American flag," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on Specter's committee. "This is most especially not the time for the Senate to vote to limit American fundamental rights or to strike at the heart of the First Amendment."
The proposed amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, reads: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
To become the Constitution's 28th amendment, the language must be approved by two-thirds of those present in each chamber, then ratified within seven years by at least 38 state legislatures.
This vote is expected by both sides to be the closest the amendment has come to being approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification.
The House satisfied the two-thirds test when it passed the bill last year, 286-130. The last time the bill got a vote in the Senate, 2000, it failed by four votes.
If all 100 senators vote, the amendment would need 67 votes to pass. Both sides of the debate counted votes last week and agreed it now has the support of 66 senators.
But there is a question whether one of them, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a co-sponsor of the amendment, will have recovered from back surgery enough to attend the vote. A spokesman Monday said the senator is going to try to attend.