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HOUSE DEFEAT TO SHIFT FLAG DEBATE; CONSCIENCE GUIDES VOTES OF DELEGATION

Rep. Amory Houghton Jr. broke the news first to leaders of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in his home city of Corning that he was not going along with the Republican drive to pass an amendment to the Constitution to ban desecration of the flag.

"I think they all agreed with my statement" that it would be a mistake to change the Bill of Rights just to deal with "crazies" who burn the American flag, Houghton said of his Monday breakfast meeting.

"The amazing thing to me is that these veterans -- who are farmers and who work in manufacturing operations -- are very, very aware of the value of the First Amendment" guaranteeing freedom of speech, Houghton said.

"This doesn't mean that I'm not going to catch some flak," Houghton said.

His next chore -- perhaps more difficult -- was telling House Minority Leader Bob Michel, R-Ill., and other Republican leaders that his vote would not be there to back up President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment. The Republican National Committee hopes to use the flag-burning issue to help increase the party's membership in the House and to recapture the Senate. Houghton, whose district includes Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, turned out to be one of only 17 House Republicans who voted against the White House.

About the same time, Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D-Buffalo, was having second thoughts about his statement of 10 days ago that it was a "responsible" amendment.

On Wednesday, Nowak changed his mind after reviewing the proposed amendment. Nowak, an attorney, said it would generate new laws in all 50 states and a harvest of litigation.

He said his office received calls from veterans who said an amendment would "take away the freedoms they fought to preserve."

Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, said his office heard from veterans who urged him to vote for an amendment. Of those surveyed by The Buffalo News, only Paxon said his mail "overwhelmingly" supported changing the Constitution. He was the only member of the Western New York delegation to vote for the amendment.

Although Nowak's shift coincided with increased pressure from the office of his leader, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., for a prompt vote on the amendment, Nowak said Foley did not try to tell him how to vote.

But Nowak observed that Foley set the time for Thursday's vote before copies of the Flag Protection Act of 1990 were distributed. This is the measure that Democrats hoped would replace the measure struck down June 11 by the Supreme Court. But it was defeated.

"There was not nearly as much stirring-up of the emotions up there (at home) as there has been down here," Houghton said. In addition, all congressional offices reported that voter interest in the issue has dropped off, compared with the flood of mail and calls they received when the Supreme Court ruled a year ago that flag burning was protected by the First Amendment.

Spokesmen for Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., said mail and telephone calls were running 3 to 1 against an amendment. A year ago, Moynihan received 1,200 calls and letters. The ratio for an amendment then was 2 to 1.

A spokesman for D'Amato said much of the Republican's 1990 mail on the issue "seemed to come from an organized effort." The result ran counter to polls that showed a majority in favor of changing the Constitution. D'Amato is strongly in favor of it.

Moynihan, who called the White House campaign for an amendment part of the "politics of distraction," will vote against it when it comes before the Senate, probably next week.

The votes of the Western New York delegation of the House were not typical of the whole House, which favored the amendment, 254-177 -- 34 votes short of the two-thirds vote needed to begin the process of amending the Constitution.

Houghton said that while his party's leaders emphasized that the party had a position on the amendment, they told him he was free to vote his conscience.

Houghton said the statute offered after the defeat of the proposed amendment could have survived a constitutional test, according to Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard law professor. The Flag Protection Act of 1990 would have made damaging a flag a crime if the purpose was to provoke violence.

Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, said the defeated statute would have been constitutional and unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court.

"There are, I believe, no reasonable grounds for overturning its provisions," he said.

LaFalce and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, never wavered in their opposition to a constitutional amendment.

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