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Opponents openly began predicting the defeat of a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag as the measure headed for a possible vote this week and supporters considered delay tactics.

After six hours of arguing and two failed votes Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee decided, 19-17, to send what could become the 27th Amendment to the Constitution to the House without any recommendation. Five Democrats joined 14 Republicans in supporting the amendment.The measure, which must be adopted by two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states to be incorporated in the Constitution, is a response to last week's 5-4 Supreme Court ruling holding that flag burning is constitutionally protected free speech.

House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., told reporters he wants to vote on the issue Thursday, but Republicans - edgy that they need the weekend to get more members on their side - started talking about stalling tactics.

Before sending the measure to the floor, the panel first split 18-18 on the proposal of Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., to recommend its rejection by the House, just as his constitutional rights subcommittee did last week. The panel then rejected a proposal to recommend its passage, 19-17.

The amendment reads: "The Congress and the states shall have the power to prohibit the physical descration of the flag of the United States."

Foley predicted a "very close vote," and Edwards began talking confidently of victory, which would be accomplished with only a one-third vote against the proposal.

"We will prevail. We've got momentum," said Edwards.

Foley, an opponent of the amendment, said he was encouraged by the fact that "a number of prominent conservatives" have spoken out against the measure in the last few days. Foley said the amendment was an issue that should be important to conservatives - "modifying the basic organic law of this country. That's what I understand conservatism is about."

While the committee acted, Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine delivered a powerful attack on the proposed amendment, saying, "We have personal freedom in America because we reject any government dictated patriotism."

Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas later noted that the preamble to the Constitution begins "We, the people," and then cited polls showing just over two thirds of those surveyed backing an amendment to the Constitution.

"At least two thirds of the Congress should get behind the American people by supporting the amendment," said Dole.