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BUSH SEEKS ACTION TO PROTECT OLD GLORY

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President Bush, reacting to a Supreme Court decision that protects the right of protesters to burn the American flag, called Tuesday for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit desecration of the flag.

Bush said "support of the First Amendment need not extend" to desecration of the flag, which he termed "the unique symbol of America."Bush fielded questions on subjects ranging from international diplomacy to child-care legislation to baseball in a free-wheeling 45-minute news conference in the White House briefing room.

The president said:

-He will carry a package of economic aid when he travels to Poland next month, but wants to first make sure the communist government there will follow through on economic and political reform. He said Soviet leaders shouldn't be "uptight" about his journey to Poland and Hungary.

-He still favors U.S. contacts with China despite the continuing crackdown in Beijing against pro-democracy leaders.

-He has no plans to call for legislation to alter recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action that drew criticism from civil rights groups.

-He intends to make sure that any wrongdoing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is thoroughly aired and remedied.

-He criticized legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate on child care but said he hopes agreement can be worked out on the subject.

Bush opened his visit to the briefing room by declaring his support for a constitutional amendment that would negate last week's 5-4 Supreme Court decision. The court held that burning the American flag as a form of protest is protected by the Constitution.

Bush said it was important to protect the free-speech guarantees of protest, but he didn't want to extend that to the flag.

The court's decision provoked an emotional response in Congress and elsewhere, and Bush said protection of the flag will "in no way limit" constitutional rights. He said he favored a constitutional amendment over legislation because a law "cannot correct, in my view, the egregious offense of burning the American flag."

A constitutional amendment must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, and then ratified by 38 of the 50 states. The day after the Supreme Court ruling, proposed constitutional amendments were introduced in both houses of Congress.

House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., reacted angrily Tuesday when reporters suggested that Republicans could make flag burning a partisan issue if Democrats fail to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.

"I'm sure people will play politics with any emotional issue," Foley said, calling such partisanship "reprehensible and disgusting."

Foley expressed caution about a constitutional amendment.

"I do not feel we should rush into an amendment to the First Amendment of the Constitution," he said.

Bush also said does not want to see contacts with the Chinese government cut off, despite a continuing crackdown in Beijing against leaders of a pro-democracy movement.

Bush vowed his administration would get to the bottom of scandals at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We are going to do everything we can to clean up any cronyism and see that matters of that nature do not recur," he said.

Bush said he would not try to assign blame for the problems at HUD.

Bush said he had confidence in HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who also has vowed to clean up his department. Investigators are looking into alleged irregularities in housing programs in several states.

Bush also said his advisers have concluded that none of the recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action has jeopardized the principles of equal opportunity for all Americans. The court has made several rulings in recent weeks that civil rights advocates say undercut progress made toward equal rights, and have said they intend to ask Congress to write new protections into law.

Bush, an avid baseball fan, declined to answer a question on whether Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose is being treated fairly by an investigation into his alleged gambling on baseball games.