Senate Republicans abruptly postponed a planned vote on the balanced-budget amendment Tuesday night, avoiding what threatened to be a stunning defeat and gaining more time to win over the single vote they need for passage of the historic measure.
The delay came at the close of an extraordinary day of public oratory and private arm-twisting. It was capped by a dramatic negotiating session begun in the middle of the Senate chamber between a group of amendment backers and a single undecided Democrat, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), while onlookers strained to read lips, facial expressions and body language.
Whether amendment backers can win over Conrad or some other senator remains to be seen. They were to meet with the North Dakota Democrat again this morning in hopes of persuading him to vote for the amendment by somehow satisfying his chief demand that the Social Security Trust Fund not be used to help balance the budget.
But Conrad said after the Senate recessed for the night: "I don't see there is a prospect for there being a meeting of minds."
If the GOP-controlled Senate fails to approve the amendment, which the Republican-dominated House passed, 300 to 132, it would be a serious setback for the Republican legislative agenda. The balanced-budget amendment was the priority in the House GOP campaign manifesto, "contract with America," and was a leading issue on the Senate Republican agenda.
After postponing the vote, amendment backers--rather than trying to change Conrad's mind--immediately turned with renewed vigor to several other Democrats that they believe may be potential supporters. They also redoubled efforts to change the mind of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, the one Republican opposed to the amendment.
It was unclear when a final vote would come. Some GOP senators said Tuesday night that it definitely would take place today, but Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said only: "Maybe this week."
After Dole announced his intention to delay action, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a staunch amendment foe, called the tactic "a sad spectacle" that bordered on a "sleazy, tawdry effort to win a victory."
If approved by at least two-thirds of the Senate and ratified by at least 38 state legislatures, the amendment would require a balanced budget either in seven years or two years after ratification, whichever is later.
There has been a budget deficit every year since 1969.
Requirements of the amendment could be waived only during wartime or when national security is threatened. It would allow Congress to approve specific instances of deficit spending, such as by raising the debt ceiling, if approved by three-fifths votes in each chamber.
In the House, an attempt to require a three-fifths "super-majority" before Congress could raise taxes was defeated.
The delay of the vote came after a day of heightening tensions, with supporters and opponents alike predicting--accurately, as it turned out--that the measure was one vote short of passage. Dole conceded shortly before the vote was to begin: "We're down to one vote." The proposal could get either 68 or 66 votes, he said.
It was shortly after those remarks that an extraordinary recess occurred and Conrad was surrounded in the middle of the Senate floor by more than a score of amendment backers and their aides and engaged in animated conversation.
After about five minutes, the talks continued in the GOP cloakroom just off the Senate floor. From there, Conrad emerged and quickly entered the Democratic cloakroom.
About 45 minutes elapsed before the likelihood of a compromise apparently faded and Dole asked for a recess until this morning.
Earlier in the day, veteran senators marveled at the cliffhanger taking shape--a rare occurrence, they said, particularly since the amendment had been debated in excruciating detail for 116 hours over a month.
"The last time it was this close--and this uncertain--was on Clarence Thomas," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), referring to the Senate's 1991 vote on the Supreme Court nominee, whose confirmation was in doubt right down to the wire.
The day began with Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and John B. Breaux (D-La.) announcing that they would vote for the amendment, bringing backers within one vote of passage.
The two senators said that their decisions came after the GOP agreed to include language to bar federal judges from ordering tax increases or spending cuts to enforce the amendment. The wording, Nunn said, allayed his concerns that unelected judges would be able to intervene in budget disputes by ordering tax increases or spending reductions.
"It is enormously important we have a mandate in the Constitution of the United States to get this budget, get this fiscal house in order," Nunn said. "Nothing else has worked."
Taking the floor next was Breaux, who said that the amendment had won his vote as well. He said that the amendment was of sufficient gravity that he did not want to deprive the states of the opportunity to pass judgment on it.
To vote no, Breaux said, "I must be convinced that on its face this amendment is such bad public policy that it must die in Washington."
The eleventh-hour concession to Nunn and Breaux was a clear indication of the GOP realization that it did not have the votes to pass the amendment. For more than a month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the amendment's floor manager, had strenuously and successfully fought off attempts to carve out exemptions, arguing that it would set an unwise precedent.
Having made that concession, Hatch's resolve may be further tested by several other Democratic demands, with Conrad's concern about the sanctity of the Social Security Trust Fund being only the chief one.
With the amendment's fate hanging in the balance all day, supporters and opponents alike spoke ominously of the political consequences to those responsible for its failure, but they predictably did not agree where that blame would fall.
The amendment's GOP backers said that failure to pass it would be shouldered squarely by the Democrats--more than a dozen of whom evidently have said that they will vote for the amendment.
But Democratic opponents said the blame would rest with the Republicans, who, they argued, had it within their power to ensure its passage--simply by meeting Democratic demands. Among those is a demand for a more detailed accounting of how Congress would seek to achieve a balanced budget by the year 2002.
"If it comes down to 66 votes versus 34, I pity those in the 34 category," Hatch said earlier in the day.
But as the debate wound down on the floor, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) shook his finger and said: "I pity an unsuspecting nation if we vote yes."
While Democrats were resisting Republican entreaties, Senate GOP freshmen filed into the chamber, sitting in a group in the back two rows, a visible reminder of the political upheaval that brought them to Congress.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) got right to the heart of their political message: "The people who will stand in the way of this balanced-budget amendment today will not be around long to stand in the way next time. It will pass. It is just a matter of when."
Times staff writers Melissa Healy, Michael Ross and Janet Hook contributed to this story.