Old Glory Still Not Safe From Matches

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A hardy perennial has suffered another seasonal setback. Two key Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota, said on Tuesday that they would not back the pre-Memorial Day effort to pass a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. The two said they would instead support a flag-desecration statute. The move once again puts the amendment in mortal danger, since their votes are essential to achieve the necessary two thirds majority in the Senate, reports TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson. Last time a flag amendment came to the Senate floor in 1995, it failed to pass by three votes.

The senators' backing of a flag-desecration statute, however, is largely symbolic. Even if it passed the Senate, the Supreme Court has ruled twice in recent years that flag-desecration laws violate the First Amendment right to free speech -- thus the attempt to amend the Constitution. "Dorgan and Conradís decision seems largely a move to protect themselves on the patriotism front, without giving Republicans the political win they want," says Dickerson. But their decision is unlikely to sideline the issue for good -- the GOP has found it to be a rallying point among its supporters. "Republicans believe it works better than prayers in the schools or abortion," says Dickerson. "Itís a nice safe hot-button issue that can activate a lot of suburban voters."