Balanced-Budget Amendment Teeters On the Brink of Oblivion - Again

Prospects for passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution this year, and maybe in this Congress, are grim following Sen. Robert Torricelli's announcement that he will vote against it.

"It's on life support," said Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma, the Senate majority whip.

The statement by Senator Torricelli, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey, climaxed a week of high drama as both sides waited to see how the last two undecided senators - Torricelli and Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana - would vote. Opponents of the measure, led by President Clinton and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, also sought to ratchet up the pressure by insisting that the balanced-budget amendment as written would threaten the Social Security program, a charge hotly denied by amendment supporters.

The amendment now has the support of 66 senators, according to chief sponsor Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, one short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment. Senator Hatch said he thought it possible two senators could change their minds, but said the fight was "uphill."

While saying he was "quite disappointed," a subdued Hatch continued, "I've been through this for 21 years now - I'm not about to give up."

It's now possible that majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi could pull the measure before a vote, tentatively set for next Tuesday, and hold it while supporters search for a way to get the crucial last vote. Or Senator Lott could vote against the measure himself, which under Senate rules would allow him to bring it up in the future.

Hatch ruled out changes in the wording of the amendment to attract more votes. "This is the only bipartisan amendment that has a chance of passage," he said. Hatch has spent the last three weeks fending off what he called "killer amendments" to the proposal offered by Democrats. Those amendments, Hatch said, "open up loopholes through which you could drive trucks."

In the House, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, said he would not schedule a vote on the amendment if it did not pass the Senate. "We must have a configuration where we can pass the [balanced-budget amendment] through both the House and the Senate," he said.

Torricelli's decision caught Republican leaders by surprise, since he had voted three times for a near-identical amendment while a member of the House, had endorsed a balanced-budget amendment in last fall's campaign, and had recently appeared to indicate that he supported it.

The freshman senator spoke after his substitute version was defeated Wednesday. He was concerned, he said, that the Hatch version would hinder the government from responding to economic crisis and military threat, and would prohibit creation of a capital budget, which he favors. While state governments and businesses have capital accounts separate from their operating budgets, the federal government does not.

"I have struggled with this decision more than any I have ever made in my life," he told reporters. "I will ... vote for a balanced budget in the 105th Congress. I will not cast the 67th vote to require an amendment to the United States Constitution."

The success of the amendment in the Senate has hinged all along on the votes of four Democratic freshmen: Torricelli, Senator Landrieu, and Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Last week Senator Cleland announced for the proposal, while Senator Johnson, who had also voted for similar proposals while a House member, came out against it, citing concerns about Social Security.

After consideration, Senator Landrieu decided honoring campaign promises was paramount. "The call for a capital budget and a special exclusion for the Social Security trust fund are indeed meritorious. However, based on many statements made during the campaign on this issue, I will also cast a Yes vote - but with reservations - for Senator Hatch's version," she said.

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