In an atmosphere of excruciating tension, Senate Republicans flinched Tuesday from a final vote on a constitutional balancedbudget amendment. One vote shy, GOP leaders struggled to salvage the centerpiece of their drive to shrink government.
Republicans courted Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota for the final, elusive vote they needed. But after feverish, unsuccessful negotiations, Majority Leader Bob Dole decided to postpone the showdown rather than accept defeat.
“I don’t see a prospect for there to be a meeting of minds,” said Conrad.
Senators said the discussions focused on a Republican offer to place Social Security trust funds off-limits to deficit cutters gradually over several years.
“This is a sad spectacle,” said the amendment’s principal foe, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. “This has every appearance of a sleazy, tawdry effort to win a victory at the cost of amending the Constitution.”
But Dole said the vote was the most important in the careers of many members of the Senate, and that majority Republicans have every right to see if they can find the votes to prevail. “And I intend to do that.”
Earlier Republican efforts to persuade the lone GOP holdout, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, to provide the decisive 67th vote failed, leaving Republicans negotiating with Conrad in hopes they could persuade him to come along - and perhaps other Democrats as well.
The amendment would require a balanced budget by 2002, unless three-fifths of both houses vote otherwise. The House cleared the measure, 300-132, in January as Republicans worked to implement their conservative “Contract With America.”
The delay came at the end of a daylong drama in which Republicans coughed up a last-minute concession barring federal judges from ordering tax hikes or spending cuts to balance the budget. The change secured the votes of Democrats Sam Nunn of Georgia and John Breaux of Louisiana, but left the amendment one vote shy of the twothirds necessary for passage.