THE contentious struggle to protect Old Glory from flag-burners spills into the United States Senate this week, but the most bitter partisan brawls may come later in the fall. Republicans, stung by a House defeat of a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag, charge Democrats with ``flag wavering.'' They vow to take their case directly to the voters.
``The battle now is completed inside the Washington Beltway. Now it goes to the American people,'' says Gary Koops, press secretary of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Edward Rollins, the Republican committee's co-chairman, says, ``Democrats who oppose a constitutional amendment ... will have to explain ... why, especially when almost 70 percent of the American people support the amendment.''
Political experts are generally skeptical about the GOP's flag-waving strategy. Horace Busby, publisher of ``The Busby Papers,'' says: ``The Republicans are stretching it to assume that this issue is a big winner for them... .The smart Republican position would be to be quiet about it.''
The amendment, strongly supported by President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress, was firmly opposed by top Democrats on Capitol Hill. The House tally - 254 for, 177 against - broke along party lines.
The public apparently wanted the amendment. A Gallup Poll on the eve of the House vote found Americans in favor by a 66-percent to 24-percent margin.
But critics carried the day, warning that for the first time in the 199-year history of the Bill of Rights, the flag amendment would alter the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights is widely regarded as the core of America's freedoms. Opponents of the flag proposal contend that it is not the flag, but the liberty that the flag represents, that is critical. This amendment would chip away at those rights, they claim.
Charles Fried, former US solicitor general, puts it this way: ``The flag...symbolizes our nation, its history, its values. We love the flag because it symbolizes the United States. But we must love the Constitution even more, because the Constitution is not a symbol. It is the thing itself.''
Dr. Fried says it would be ironic if flag-burners, ``like naughty, nasty children who...provoke their parents,'' successfully goad the nation into changing the Bill of Rights.
Erwin Griswold, who has argued 127 cases before the US Supreme Court, derides the amendment as trivial, devious, and dangerous.
``This is clearly an amendment of the First Amendment. I don't say that is quite the equivalent of the amending of the 10 Commandments. But it is a whittling away at the basic document of this country,'' he says.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts expresses similar views: ``It is wrong to desecrate the Constitution to prevent desecration of the flag. We do not honor the flag - indeed, we dishonor the flag - when we diminish the freedoms for which it stands.''
All of this perturbs supporters, like Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas and House Republican leader Bob Michel of Illinois.
Senator Dole rejects arguments that the Bill of Rights would be undermined.
``The real culprit here is the Supreme Court,'' the senator says. ``It was the...court which [on July 3, 1989] amended the Bill of Rights by ruling - for the first time in our nation's history - that the flag could be burned, mutilated, desecrated - all under the guise of something called constitutionally protected speech.''
In floor debate, Congressman Michel contended that ``we can have free speech and also have laws against flag desecration.'' He argued that opposition to the amendment is grounded in fear.
``It is a fear that if the American people constitutionally protect our flag on one day, they will allow or even call upon the government to start burning books, banning unpopular ideas, and closing newspapers the next. That is, quite frankly, a nonsensical argument,'' he said.
Judge Robert Bork argues that ``the amendment would not alter, but rather would restore the First Amendment to the Constitution [by reversing Texas v. Johnson, which permits flag-burning.] It is wholly unrealistic to suppose that every decision of the Supreme Court, no matter how wrong, represents the real Constitution.''
Senate Judiciary chairman Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware still hopes to craft an alternative amendment that might pass muster in both chambers. But prospects look dim.
Meanwhile, GOP campaigners are ready to go. Mark Nuttle, executive director of the Republican Congressional Committee, says that issues like the flag and federal funding for obscene art expose Democratic weakness.
``This [Democratic] Congress doesn't stand for any restrictions on personal conduct, no matter how offensive,'' Mr. Nuttle says.