ON the eve of the crucial balanced-budget vote I phoned someone on the Hill who was privy to what was going on behind the scenes. ''Why,'' I asked this high-up GOP operative, ''can't [Senate majority leader Bob] Dole come up with concessions that will persuade the one crossover vote now needed?''
I was told that several trys had been made at rewriting sections of the amendment that would accomplish this end. ''But,'' I was told, ''we're fearful that while we draft language that will satisfy those who want to make sure the amendment doesn't affect Social Security, we may, with this change, lose some Republicans who don't want to go that far.''
He said that Senator Dole had decided to have the delayed vote this next afternoon. No, he said, Dole wasn't throwing in the towel: ''He's hoping that some of those Democrats who now say they are voting against the amendment will cave in -- not wanting to go back to the voters with a vote against an amendment that nearly 80 percent of Americans favor.'' Obviously, Dole's hopes were in vain.
Now that's the best explanation I have been able to dig up on how an immensely popular amendment lost by a fingernail.
Will the Republicans now be able to turn the vote to their advantage? Or will Democrats be able to escape the wrath of the people by claiming that their ''no'' vote meant they were saving older Americans from having their Social Security benefits cut?
We shall see. But the political importance of this epic vote seems clear: It is the beginning of a Great Debate over which of the two parties has the right approach to what ails this country. Up to now the Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have held the floor. But a few hours after the budget-amendment votes were counted the president climbed into the ring.
Making it known at a press conference that he now is ready to engage the Republicans in a battle over political philosophy, Mr. Clinton said that the debate goes beyond the budget. The argument between the parties, he said, is ''about the role of government, and you can see it running through every issue, from the laws being debated in Congress to the question of the recisions legislation before the Congress.'' He then put the debate issue as he sees it in a nutshell:
''The old Washington view -- I think it's fair to say -- is that the federal government could provide solutions to America's problems.... The GOP Contract reflects in many cases outright hostility to governmental action.''
So it is that a Great Debate now is clearly under way. The president, slow to get into the battle, now has his fists raised: At the press conference, he hit the Republicans hard for what he sees as unacceptable reductions in ''education, nutritional help for mothers and schoolchildren, antidrug efforts in our schools, and other things that appear to target children to pay for tax cuts for upper-income Americans.''
''And I look forward to this debate,'' he said. ''I think it's healthy. And I think it's good for the American people.''
My memory goes back to another Great Debate, one that began in the 1930s and continued on for years. The question was reversed then: It was how much should the federal role be increased and state and local governments' role be decreased in providing services for the American people. Now, of course, it is how much of the programs taken over by Washington should be returned to the lower levels of government.
Back in the '30s many Americans, mostly Republicans, strongly opposed what they saw as a Washington power grab. But vast numbers of Americans were in dire need back then, during the Great Depression, and the states and localities were doing little to help them. So the federal government stepped into this void and took over the job of improving the lives of Americans everywhere.
And now the debate is on again.