WASHINGTON — Debate on another in a series of measures that aim to please key Republican constituencies opens in the Senate on Monday, but with one big difference.
The latest proposal -- a ban on flag burning -- might actually pass.
The other recent measures that GOP Senate leaders had pushed with an eye toward invigorating party supporters, such as a ban on gay marriage and a repeal of the estate tax, were expected to fail even before the first floor speech was delivered. However, Senate vote counters say the constitutional amendment to prohibit physical desecration of the U.S. flag is on the cusp of passage.
Approval would probably ensure that the measure is sent to the states for ratification. And that prospect has raised the stakes for what had been a largely symbolic face-off on the issue in the Senate.
The flag-burning amendment had passed the House six times since 1995, most recently last summer. But the proposal consistently stalled in the Senate, where it was clear it lacked the two-thirds majority needed for approval of a constitutional amendment. Now, the GOP's gain of four Senate seats in the 2004 election has made the matter too close to call.
The amendment "will win or lose by a vote," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
If it clears Congress, it would be the first time in almost three decades that Congress agreed to amend the Constitution. It would then become part of the document if approved by the legislatures of 38 states.
During this week's debate, Senate Democrats are expected to revisit the criticisms they aired about the ban on gay marriage -- which also was a proposed constitutional amendment, the estate tax repeal bill and legislation to crack down on medical malpractice lawsuits.
The measures, Democrats argued, ignored more serious problems facing the nation and were designed purely to score political points that could help the GOP cause in this year's congressional elections. The Democrats also charged that Frist, in particular, was setting a legislative agenda that was based more on winning conservative backing for a potential presidential run in 2008 than addressing the needs of most Americans.
"These are misplaced priorities," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Referring to the flag-burning amendment, Manley asked, "Is this really more of a pressing issue than the rising cost of healthcare and [college] tuition?"
Some conservative activists echo these complaints, saying they would rather the Senate focus on what they view as more substantive goals, such as confirming more nominees to the federal judiciary.
"We believe this is a misguided use of time," said Manuel Miranda, a GOP activist who is pressing for faster action on judicial nominees.
The amendment's proponents say it is needed to protect an honored symbol of the nation. The amendment would effectively overturn a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that flag burning is a protected form of political expression under the 1st Amendment.
"This is a great victory for patriotism in this country," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said when the flag-burning ban was approved recently by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We want to give the power back to the people to decide how they will treat the American flag."
The Senate last voted on the amendment in 2000; it fell four votes short of the 67 it needed to pass.
The American Civil Liberties Union is among the groups opposing the amendment, and its officials say the expected closeness of this week's vote, expected Tuesday, could give pause to some senators who had backed it, knowing it would fail.
"Now, because it might actually pass, people are starting to think a little more deeply about the meaning of this vote," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington office.
With politically potent veterans' groups strongly supporting the amendment, the issue puts some Democrats on the spot. Reid, for instance, despite objecting to scheduling the matter for a vote, plans to vote for the amendment, as he has in the past.
The political peril is especially acute for the several Democratic senators considering presidential runs, given opposition to the amendment from liberal activists.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), widely considered the front-runner for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, has tried to strike a middle ground: She has said she opposes flag burning but does not support prohibiting it through a constitutional amendment.
She has introduced legislation with Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) that would make it a crime to burn or otherwise desecrate the flag -- legislation they say was crafted to overcome the Supreme Court decision on the issue.
An aide to Clinton said the bill also is slated for a Senate vote this week.
Procedural requirements will force another House vote on the amendment if the Senate passes it. In its vote on the measure a year ago, the House approved it on a 286-130 vote, eight votes more than the two-thirds majority.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.