Sixty-three senators voted for the so-called flag burning amendment and 37 voted against it. But two thirds of the 100-member Senate, or 67 senators, needed to approve the measure for it to be sent to state legislatures for ratification.
The vote "protected the constituion, the bill of rights and, most importantly, our constitutional freedoms," said Sen. Partick Leahy, D-Vermont, a leader of the opposition to the amendment.
The roll-call vote was preceded by a debate marked by high oratory, some of it by Senators who had decided to switch sides on the issue.
North Dakota Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, whose votes were considered crucial for approval of the flag amendment, decided to vote against it.
West Virginia's Richard Byrd also decided to oppose the amendment, telling a veterans group Tuesday that the amendment may work against what he calls "the freedoms we all so zealously guarded."
"I, like other veterans, love the flag," said minority leader Tom Daschle. "I cannot understand why anyone would burn the flag someone would burn the flag simply to call attention to some cause."
But, Daschle said, a ban on flag burning constituted a violation of free speech, and he voted against it.
"We live in a free society where individuals are free to express their views. In my opinion burning the flag is not speech. It is conduct of the most offensive kind," said Majority Leader. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "Why not pass this amendment here, send it to the people, let them make the final determination?"
Prior to the vote, the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the measure, said "the amendment is closer than ever to passing the Senate, with only a handful of Senators holding its fate in their hands."
Five years ago, a Senate's last vote on such an amendment fell three votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage.
The flag amendment has been a Republican priority since the party gained control of both chambers of Congress in 1995.
The House has achieved the two-thirds majority in votes in 1995, 1997 and again last year. The Senate fell three votes short in 1995 and hasn't tried again.
The amendment, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, comprised one sentence: "Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
The Citizens Flag Alliance, a pro-amendment group of 140 veterans and civic groups, said three-fourths of Americans support a flag amendment and 49 state legislaturesall but Vermont'shave passed resolutions urging Congress to pass the amendment.
But opponents argued there is no sense in amending the Constitution, to thpossible detriment of free speech, for an act that rarely occurs.
"To protect the symbol of freedom at the expense of freedom itself is backwards to me," said Paul Tash, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the freedom of information committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The real test of free speech, he said, comes "when that free speech is repugnant."
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