Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who face potentially difficult reelection campaigns next year, plan to break ranks with a majority of their fellow Democrats next month to support a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the U.S. flag.
Preliminary surveys conducted last week suggest that the amendment, which passed the House by a 286-130 vote, is one or two votes short of the 67 it needs in the Senate to be submitted to the states for ratification.
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|Burning the flag, a frequent protest tactic, especially outside the United States, would be illegal in the states if the Senate passes the amendment and enough states ratify it.|
The spotlight will shine particularly brightly on Democratic senators seeking reelection in Republican-leaning Southern and Midwestern states, where support for the amendment is thought to be strongest.
In the past, the vote on the amendment has split along the familiar red-state, blue-state divide. When the Senate last considered a flag-burning amendment in 2000, 12 Democrats voted for it. Only one, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), hails from a state carried by John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.
She will be joined this year by Stabenow, whose home state of Michigan narrowly backed Kerry in the election. Stabenow was a consistent supporter of the amendment during her two terms in the House.
Two other Democratic senators seeking reelection in 2006 in states Bush carried twice, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, have opposed the amendment in the past. Tom Gavin, Byrd’s spokesman, said the senator has not decided how he will vote on the amendment and is not likely to do so until its final language is hammered out. Conrad’s office did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Jason Stverak, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, said that Conrad’s past opposition to the amendment “is just another example of how Sen. Conrad is out of touch with North Dakota’s values.”
Conrad was reelected easily in 2000 after voting against the amendment, but Stverak said he believes voters will weigh the issue more heavily in a post-Sept.11 world.
North Dakota Republicans could seize on the emotionally charged issue because Conrad’s popularity in other areas remains high.
“I think this could become one of the central issues, because I’m wondering what else they could attack him on,” said Robert Kweit, professor of political science at the University of North Dakota, “But in a close race, this could be very dangerous for him.” North Dakota is a socially conservative state.
Analysts believe Conrad will face a tough reelection battle if Gov. John Hoeven (R) decides to run against him.
Democratic strategist Steve Jarding, who managed the campaign of Gov. Mark Warner (D-Va.) that surprised pundits by capturing a majority of the state’s rural vote, said that voting against the amendment is not automatically a liability in red states.
“I think it’s more about how you defend your position. It becomes a character issue,” Jarding said. “You can’t equivocate. You have to put energy into it. You just have to say strongly, ‘I’m against undermining the First Amendment. I find it unconscionable.’”
But Jarding concedes that, particularly for Southerners, it can seem inadvisable to be seen as refusing to protect the flag.
In 2000, Chuck Robb (D-Va.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) were the only senators from states of the old Confederacy to oppose the amendment. Neither is still in the Senate. Robb was defeated that year in a campaign in which his opponent, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), cited Robb’s vote against the flag amendment as evidence that Robb had lost touch with Virginia voters.
Next month’s vote comes at a time when polls give conflicting accounts of where public opinion is on the issue. Terri Schroeder, a senior lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that a 2004 Freedom Forum poll found a majority of Americans oppose the amendment.
“We’ve never seen support for an amendment this low, in the Freedom Forum poll or any other,” Schroeder said, suggesting Americans are becoming less eager to outlaw flag desecration.
Marty Justis, executive director of the Citizens Flag Alliance, an umbrella group of pro-amendment organizations, pointed to a handful of polls with slightly different wording that find support in the 70-percent range.
“What this is really about is following the will of the people,” Justis said. “Come Election Day, I expect people will want to know where their senators stood.”