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The Senate rejected a constitutional amendment against flag burning Tuesday with critics arguing that it was already dead and being debated largely as ammunition for use against them at election time.

``We will take a meaningless vote so that some campaign operatives can try to bludgeon senators who are willing to stand up for the Bill of Rights and vote against this amendment,' said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio.The Senate voted 58-42 in favor, leaving it nine short of the required two-thirds majority needed to approve amendments. Thirty-eight Republicans voted in favor and seven voted against; among Democrats, it was 20 in favor and 35 against.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., voted for the amendment; Sen. Terry Sanford, D-N.C., voted against it.

President Bush has been calling for approval of the measure, which said simply that ``Congress and the states shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.'

But the House rejected it this past week, falling 34 votes short of two-thirds with a 254-177 tally in favor. Speaker Thomas Foley said lawmakers would not get a chance to reconsider this year.

The Senate's action thus was largely a symbolic gesture that gave senators a chance to vent their views on an issue that has raged in the year since the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a Texas flag-burning law.

Before voting on the amendment itself, the Senate rejected three rival versions.

The Senate rejected, 90-10, a plan offered by Helms that would strip the Supreme Court of its authority to decide flag-burning cases.

Helms pointed to the close 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court and said his measure was the most effective way to combat ``these kooks ... these loonies who burn the American flag.'

Critics said the Helms plan would violate long-established law giving the Supreme Court jurisdiction over constitutional issues. ``It's almost as ancient as the Republic,' said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.

The Senate also voted 51-48 to kill a plan offered by Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., that would replace the amendment with legislation to ban burning the flag in any way that would cause a breach of the peace.

By 93-7, the Senate rejected a proposal offered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., that would allow Congress to ban flag burning but deny that power to the states.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas conceded before the final vote that ``we're not going to win now.' But he said that ``we're not going to give up, and we'll see what happens in the days and weeks and months ahead.'

``In the heartland of America, some folks just can't understand what Congress is up to,' Dole said.

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