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Republicans Delay Vote in Senate on Balanced Budget : Politics: Amendment backers balk as the count looks one shy of passage and postpone the roll call. The action caps an extraordinary day of tactical wrangling.

March 01, 1995|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans abruptly postponed a planned vote on the balanced-budget amendment Tuesday night, avoiding what threatened to be a stunning defeat and gaining more time to win over the single vote they need for passage of the historic measure.

The delay came at the close of an extraordinary day of public oratory and private arm-twisting. It was capped by a dramatic negotiating session begun in the middle of the Senate chamber between a group of amendment backers and a single undecided Democrat, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), while onlookers strained to read lips, facial expressions and body language.

Whether amendment backers can win over Conrad or some other senator remains to be seen. They were to meet with the North Dakota Democrat again this morning in hopes of persuading him to vote for the amendment by somehow satisfying his chief demand that the Social Security Trust Fund not be used to help balance the budget.

But Conrad said after the Senate recessed for the night: "I don't see there is a prospect for there being a meeting of minds."

If the GOP-controlled Senate fails to approve the amendment, which the Republican-dominated House passed, 300 to 132, it would be a serious setback for the Republican legislative agenda. The balanced-budget amendment was the priority in the House GOP campaign manifesto, "contract with America," and was a leading issue on the Senate Republican agenda.

After postponing the vote, amendment backers--rather than trying to change Conrad's mind--immediately turned with renewed vigor to several other Democrats that they believe may be potential supporters. They also redoubled efforts to change the mind of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, the one Republican opposed to the amendment.

It was unclear when a final vote would come. Some GOP senators said Tuesday night that it definitely would take place today, but Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said only: "Maybe this week."

After Dole announced his intention to delay action, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a staunch amendment foe, called the tactic "a sad spectacle" that bordered on a "sleazy, tawdry effort to win a victory."

If approved by at least two-thirds of the Senate and ratified by at least 38 state legislatures, the amendment would require a balanced budget either in seven years or two years after ratification, whichever is later.

There has been a budget deficit every year since 1969.

Requirements of the amendment could be waived only during wartime or when national security is threatened. It would allow Congress to approve specific instances of deficit spending, such as by raising the debt ceiling, if approved by three-fifths votes in each chamber.

In the House, an attempt to require a three-fifths "super-majority" before Congress could raise taxes was defeated.

The delay of the vote came after a day of heightening tensions, with supporters and opponents alike predicting--accurately, as it turned out--that the measure was one vote short of passage. Dole conceded shortly before the vote was to begin: "We're down to one vote." The proposal could get either 68 or 66 votes, he said.

It was shortly after those remarks that an extraordinary recess occurred and Conrad was surrounded in the middle of the Senate floor by more than a score of amendment backers and their aides and engaged in animated conversation.

After about five minutes, the talks continued in the GOP cloakroom just off the Senate floor. From there, Conrad emerged and quickly entered the Democratic cloakroom.

About 45 minutes elapsed before the likelihood of a compromise apparently faded and Dole asked for a recess until this morning.

Earlier in the day, veteran senators marveled at the cliffhanger taking shape--a rare occurrence, they said, particularly since the amendment had been debated in excruciating detail for 116 hours over a month.

"The last time it was this close--and this uncertain--was on Clarence Thomas," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), referring to the Senate's 1991 vote on the Supreme Court nominee, whose confirmation was in doubt right down to the wire.

The day began with Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and John B. Breaux (D-La.) announcing that they would vote for the amendment, bringing backers within one vote of passage.

The two senators said that their decisions came after the GOP agreed to include language to bar federal judges from ordering tax increases or spending cuts to enforce the amendment. The wording, Nunn said, allayed his concerns that unelected judges would be able to intervene in budget disputes by ordering tax increases or spending reductions.

"It is enormously important we have a mandate in the Constitution of the United States to get this budget, get this fiscal house in order," Nunn said. "Nothing else has worked."

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