A constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning is moving toward a vote in the Senate minus two original sponsors, who bailed out saying they do not want to tamper with the Bill of Rights.
"It was a mistake of the heart but nonetheless it was a mistake," Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., told the Senate on Tuesday as he withdrew as one of 53 cosponsors of the proposed constitutional amendment.Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., another cosponsor, also took to the Senate floor to abandon his support.
And Democratic critics said for the first time the measure was likely to be defeated in a floor vote set for Thursday morning.
"I hope and expect that there will not be sufficient votes for the amendment to prevail," Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, told reporters.
The measure would authorize the federal and state governments to ban burning the American flag.
The House approved and sent to President Bush on Thursday a bill that would ban burning and other desecration of the American flag by simple statute. He said he would allow it to become law without his signature while continuing to press for a constitutional amendment.
Supporters of a constitutional amendment say any statute is likely to be overturned in court on grounds that it violates free speech guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.
The campaign for a constitutional amendment began in June after the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Texas flag-burner Gregory Lee Johnson on grounds that his right to free speech had been violated.
Critics of the amendment say a "content neutral" law that outlaws flag burning regardless of whether it involves political protest is better than tampering with constitutional freedoms.
If the measure is approved by the Senate it goes to the House and then to state legislatures. A proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by 38 legislatures before becoming part of the Constitution.
Danforth said that if the Senate did approve the measure it most likely would eventually be ratified, adding, "If it is going to be stopped it must be stopped in the Senate."
"This is not a throwaway vote," Danforth said. "This is not just the kind of vote you cast thinking, well, this is nothing, somebody else can act as the safety net."
A backer of the amendment, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, scoffed at the notion that the Senate would be unduly tampering with freedom of speech if it passed the measure.
"This freedom has never been deemed absolute," Hatch said. "Obscenity has never been protected under the First Amendment." He said other restrictions also exist, such as libel laws.
Hatch said the measure "does not prevent a single idea or thought from being expressed . . . it merely prevents conduct with respect to one object and one object only and that's our flag."