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POLITICS: DEMOS CALL VOTE A VICTORY FOR FREE SPEECH. REPUBLICANS SEEK REVENGE FOR LEAVING FLAG UNPROTECTED.In action that simply poured more fuel on inflamed political fights about flag burning, the House fell 34 votes short Thursday of passing a constitutional amendment to allow flag protection.

Democratic leaders called the 254-177 vote - shy of the two-thirds needed for passage - a victory to protect the First Amendment freedom of speech.But Republican leaders vowed to flog Democrats this election year for leaving the flag unprotected. They complained the quick vote - just a week after the Supreme Court again ruled in favor of the right to burn the flag - did not allow veterans groups to mobilize planned national lobbying efforts for the amendment.

Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, voted against the amendment and conceded that his vote will likely cause him political problems in Utah - where he figures residents favor the amendment "four or five to one . . . But I had to vote for what I feel is right."

Reps. Jim Hansen and Howard Nielson, both R-Utah, voted for the amendment, and were among those who vowed to make Democrats pay for killing it.

House Speaker Thomas Foley proclaimed the issue dead in the House for at least the rest of the year, saying "we don't need to go round and round and round" on the issue. But Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole said the Senate should vote on it anyway by July 4.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee began faxing press releases attacking House Democrats who voted against the amendment for "flag wavering."

Owens said that, like most Democrats, he worried the amendment would erode freedom-of-speech guarantees.

In a speech on the House floor, Owens said, "The Bill of Rights has lasted 200 years without amendment, and I urge upon my colleagues that we reject this mischievous attempt to compromise the protections afforded us by that sacred document."

He said in an interview that he feels flag burning "is a passing thing" _ but abhorrent _ that would disappear if politicians quit drawing attention to it. "If we don't make a fuss about it, then like other foolish and repulsive practices this will pass as well."

He said he expects attacks from Republicans but hopes voters will look at his actions objectively.

"You do the right thing and hope that in the end that people agree with you or are adequately tolerant. On this issue, I think I am looking for their tolerance," he said.

Meanwhile, Nielson said, "I think we have to protect the flag. . .. I think the constitutional amendment is the best route," adding that he plans to "blast" those who voted against it. He estimates that 80 percent of the people in his district support the amendment.

Hansen said he rejects Democratic arguments that the amendment would do violence to the Bill of Rights.

"If that is truly the case, then we've done violence 26 previous times with 26 previous amendments," he said. "My vote today is not to mandate a change in the Constitution, it is a vote to give the citizens of this great nation the opportunity to decide."

If both houses eventually pass the amendment by two-thirds votes, then three-fourths of the states would have to ratify it before it became part of the Constitution.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday on the flag amendment, which proceeded at the same time as the House debate, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that the flag amendment would not hurt the Bill of Rights.

"In my view, the flag amendment does not amend the First Amendment. It overturns two (court) decisions that I believe were wrongly decided," he said.

After the House killed the flag amendment, it also voted 236-179 to reject a proposed simple statute designed to outlaw flag desecration that was deemed likely to provoke violence. Hansen, Nielson and Owens all voted against it.

Congress tried last year to protect the flag from desecration through a similar statute, which the Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional last week.

During the emotional seven-hour debate on the flag amendment Thursday, numerous lawmakers tried to wrap their views in powerful symbols.

For example, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, said the flag is unique because "too many people have paid for it with their blood. . .. Too many have marched behind it. Too many have slept in a box under it. Too many kids and parents and widows have accepted this triangle as the last remembrance of their most precious son."

But Foley, making a rare floor speech, said, "We should not amend the Constitution of the United States to reach the sparse and scattered and despicable conduct of a few who would dishonor the flag or defile it."

Foley cast only his second vote since becoming speaker to oppose the amendment.