Two liberal Democratic senators, both facing reelection next year, announced Thursday that they will vote for a Republican-sponsored balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Tom Harkin of Iowa, both of whom voted against a similar proposal last year, said they will support the plan when it comes to a vote in the Senate on Tuesday, guaranteeing backers of the amendment at least 64 and perhaps as many as 66 of the 67 votes required for approval.
However, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), one of a key group of uncommitted Democrats on the issue, vowed Thursday to oppose the measure unless it is changed to assure that courts could not intervene in tax and spending issues.
Nunn said in a speech that while he favors a balanced-budget amendment, "I will not be able to vote for it unless we make it clear that the judiciary of this country is not going to tax and spend and we're not going to change our form of government through the back door by a constitutional amendment that is ambiguous on this question."
If passed by the Senate, the amendment, requiring the federal government to spend no more than it takes in starting no later than the year 2002, would go to the states for ratification. The House has already approved it. The President's signature is not required.
The defections of Harkin and Biden were a serious blow to opponents of the legislation, said David Certner, an official of the American Assn. of Retired People, which fears that the amendment will erode Social Security benefits. But he said opponents will not give up.
Harkin announced his decision in a phone call to reporters in Iowa.
"The balanced-budget amendment is far from perfect, but it's the best available alternative right now," he said. "It's time we pass on to our kids more opportunity, not more debt."
Biden revealed his decision in a written statement.
"I have concluded that there is nothing left to try except the balanced-budget amendment," Biden said after reviewing earlier attempts to end the government's chronic deficit-spending.