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A Democrat's Indecision Stymies GOP


WASHINGTON — With just over 25 minutes left until a scheduled showdown, the deal to balance the budget by constitutional amendment began to come apart in the full view of whirring cameras and a packed gallery of citizens Tuesday night.

As late as 6:35 p.m. EST, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), still in command of debating time on the Senate floor, could muster no more voices to join him in opposing the amendment and the measure appeared headed for a historic--if narrow--victory.

Confident backers of the measure and dispirited opponents poured onto the Senate floor, ready to take their places and cast what most had proclaimed the most important vote of their careers.

But few had counted on the sheer weight of North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad's indecision.

Conrad, a populist deficit hawk considered key to a victory for the budget amendment, was concerned that under a constitutional amendment, the nation's Social Security system would be plundered by deficit-cutters. He sought assurances, and Republican leaders, initially reluctant to do so, offered to back separate legislation that would place the Social Security trust fund off-limits to deficit-cutters after the year 2006.

As the negotiations with Conrad withdrew into the Republican senators' inner sanctum, backers of the balanced-budget measure felt sure they had their man.

With the deal just short of a handshake, Daschle hesitated shyly at the door of the Republicans' cloakroom. In he pushed, and plucked Conrad from the fray. Conrad's deal, not yet consummated, stayed on the table.

Daschle drew Conrad into the Democratic cloakroom, and less than five minutes later, the North Dakotan emerged to raise a new issue that left Republican leaders stunned and confounded. Conrad, it seemed, wanted more--a constitutional assurance that a balanced-budget requirement could be waived in the event of a national economic emergency.

And with that, backers of the amendment, shaking their heads in bewilderment, saw their victory slipping away.

The drama derailed Tuesday night's planned vote and plunged the fate of the balanced-budget amendment into deep uncertainty. It surpassed any in recent memory as political theater, leaving both sides scrambling to snatch a victory from the morass, and spectators perfectly confounded about its larger meaning.

Conrad, the lawmaker at the center of the storm, appeared unfazed. He declared to reporters that he did not see the prospect of a meeting of the minds. And, with Republicans promising all-night negotiations, he bluntly bowed out.

"I'm not going to be in any all-night negotiations," Conrad told reporters as he stalked off the Senate floor.

"It must have been 20 years since I've seen anything like this," said an astonished Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's decision to delay the vote drew a harsh rebuke from Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), an ardent opponent of the balanced-budget measure who earlier had agreed to discontinue debate and move toward a vote. Smelling a fresh possibility for victory, Byrd bemoaned "the sad spectacle" of amendment backers scrambling to stave off their defeat.

"This is no place for deal making, for back-room huddles," said Byrd, whose side appeared to have benefited from the latest of those colloquies. "No wonder the American people have such a low estimation of Congress," he thundered.

Byrd, 77, said, "Change merely for the sake of change" had become for some a virtue above all others. "But I will never, never bow to those messengers of expedience or to the managers of any political party's agenda."

Dole, growing prickly, asserted Republicans had "every right to use the rules" to their advantage and pointedly accused Byrd of having used similar stalling tactics many times during the latter's tenure as Senate majority leader.

President Clinton, who opposes the amendment, watched on television as events unfolded on the Senate floor, said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. He said Clinton met with White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and planned to call wavering senators.

As the Senate chamber darkened for the night Tuesday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has shepherded the balanced-budget amendment through 19 days of debate, acknowledged that Republicans could not accede to the latest of Conrad's demands. "We can't do it," said Hatch. "We've said it 50 times today."

But with hopes slipping, Hatch refused to concede defeat.

"Hope springs eternal in this very thin and emaciated breast," he said. "The salvation of our country depends on it. The future of our children depends on it."

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