Senate rejects campaign finance reform, debates flag amendment

Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate today rejected a proposed constitutional amendment giving Congress control over political contributions. Still pending was another amendment that could make desecrating the American flag illegal.

Senators voted 67-33 to defeat a measure offered by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would give Congress power to set reasonable limits on the amount of contributions that can be made to a candidate for federal office. A two-thirds majority is needed for constitutional amendments.

Hollings wanted his provision added to a proposed amendment on flag desecration introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The flag vote could come later today or Wednesday.

Hollings said lawmakers have become a ``dignified bunch of money-raisers'' and that those supporting efforts by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to change contribution rules are ``getting a free ride voting for it, knowing it's never going anywhere'' because the bill is unconstitutional.

The Hatch proposal is likely to mirror the last flag-desecration vote in the Senate, in 1995, when supporters fell three short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution.

Debate has been passionate on both sides of both issues, as opponents argued they seriously undermine the First Amendment's free speech rights.

Hatch's amendment comprises one sentence: ``Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.''

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a leading critic of campaign finance limits, said the Hollings provision ``crudely reaches in and rips the heart right out of the First Amendment.''

McCain made campaign spending reform a cornerstone of his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He says his legislative efforts to limit campaign contributions are constitutional, but Hollings argued that more fundamental changes in the nation's legal framework are needed.

Campaign finance-limits opponent McConnell also opposes the flag amendment. He proposed an alternative under which Congress would enact a law to establish jail terms and large fines for damaging a flag with the intent to incite or produce violence. It was defeated 64-36.

``We're dealing here with a non-issue,'' said Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, one of four Republicans who voted against the amendment in 1995. ``No one is burning the flag in America today in any discernible numbers.''

The difficult constitutional amendment path was chosen because the Supreme Court has struck down both flag desecration and campaign finance laws on First Amendment ground.

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.

A constitutional amendment also needs to be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.

Supporters acknowledge they are still several votes short, but the vote will put senators on the record in an election year. The debate this week coincides with a meeting in Washington of the American Legion, a primary backer of the amendment.

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 legislatures - all but Vermont's - have passed resolutions urging Congress to pass the amendment.

But opponents argued there is no sense in amending the Constitution, to the possible 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.''

EDITOR'S NOTE - The resolution number is S.J. Res. 14.

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