After debating it for a month, the Senate votes today on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget - and the outcome of the historic roll call is still in doubt.
With the votes of five Democrats and one Republican uncertain, the two-thirds majority needed to adopt the amendment and send it to the states for ratification is tenuous.
“The vote is still very squishy,” said one Democratic leadership aide.
New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the GOP point man for rustling up the votes to pass the measure, said he is one shy of the 67 senators required to push the amendment over the top - if all 100 senators vote.
The Republican-controlled House passed the amendment last month, 300-132, turning up the heat on the Senate to follow suit.
All but one of the Senate’s 53 Republicans have signed on to the amendment. Of the 47 Democrats, only 12 have announced their support. That makes 64 announced supporters.
Five others - Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., Wendell Ford, D-Ky., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and John Breaux, D-La. - have declined to say publicly how they will vote, although Dorgan and Breaux are expected to support it.
That leaves the final verdict to one of the three remaining Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon. All four men have expressed serious reservations about the legal and fiscal impact of the measure.
Nunn, for example, is insisting that the language of the amendment be revised to make it clear that federal courts cannot impose taxes or spending cuts (or both) on the country if Congress fails to achieve a balanced budget.
So far, Republicans have refused to allow this.
Instead, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, implored Nunn to let Congress handle that issue in accompanying enabling legislation. But Nunn has remained adamant about incorporating the court ban in the amendment itself.
Conrad is still simmering over the GOP’s refusal to permit an exemption for Social Security benefits in the amendment.
“That’s where the big money is,” Conrad said, “and that’s where the Republicans will go when it comes time to balance the budget.”
Ford has expressed sympathy for both of those arguments and is further put out by a Republican television campaign in Kentucky to badger him into voting for the amendment.
“Wendell is absolutely livid about that TV stuff,” said a Democratic colleague.
Hatfield, the only Republican who has expressed opposition to the amendment, is said by aides to be holding firm against it.
“His attitude is, `Over my dead body!”’ said one Republican close to the senator.
But Gregg and Hatch are hoping that, if the amendment comes up short by one vote, that Hatfield will relent and provide it.
Or, as an alternative, that he simply not vote at all. In that case, with only 99 senators voting, just 66 would be needed to provide the two-thirds majority (of those present and voting) to pass it.
If the Senate adopts the amendment, it will be certified by the director of the National Archives and sent out to the state legislatures for ratification. Thirty-eight states must approve it before it can be included in the Constitution.
Under the terms of the amendment, Congress must balance the budget no later than 2002 and thereafter.
Spending in any given year could exceed income only in the event of war - or if 60 percent majorities in both houses approved a red-ink budget.
Critics, including President Clinton, maintain that the rigidity of this requirement could deepen recessions and even plunge the nation into long-term economic crises, similar to the Great Depression in the 1930s.
For the past several days, the president has been lobbying the undeclared Democrats to vote against the amendment.
“I’ve had extensive conversations with all of them,” Clinton said Monday. But he seemed uncertain about whether he had succeeded in blunting the amendment drive.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the president is convinced the amendment “is not in the best economic interest” of the country.
Meanwhile, several Democratic state legislators wrote to Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., expressing concern that passage would “shift disproportionate costs or other obligations onto state governments.”
The legislators said voters have a “right to know how this amendment would impact on Social Security, taxes, defense spending and programs providing critical funding to the states.”