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Senate Amendment Decision Hinges on Vote of Sen. Nunn

By Karen Hosler
The Baltimore Sun

The centerpiece of the Republican reform agenda in Congress - a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution - heads for a showdown in the Senate Tuesday at least one vote short of the 67 needed for approval.

Republican leaders scrambled Monday night to address the concerns of Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who is believed to hold the decisive vote on the constitutional amendment. But they remained unwilling to go so far as to change the amendment as Nunn wants.

"If I have my way, people are going to have to stand up and vote" on the amendment as it is, said Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch.

If the tally falls short Tuesday, Hatch predicted, blame will fall on the Democrats, whose votes are needed to make up the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a constitutional amendment before it can be sent on to the states for ratification. Although four other Democrats are also listed as unofficially uncommitted, Hatch described Nunn's vote as critical.

But Nunn, a respected veteran whose positions are closely watched by other senators and is seldom afraid to stand up to the leadership of either party, sounded just as determined to hold his ground. He said that he is willing to consider a Republican plan to address his fears about giving judges too much power over the budget process in a separate bill but that he has "grave doubts" that he will find such a compromise acceptable.

Nunn said he fears that the amendment, as passed by the House, would allow the federal courts to step in and force Congress to raise taxes or cut spending if Congress fails to balance the budget or cannot produce the three-fifths majority needed for deficit spending.

"These federal judges are great folks but they're not elected," Nunn said at a news conference Monday in Atlanta.

A Senate defeat of the balanced budget amendment - which passed the House by an overwhelming margin - would be the first major setback for the House Republicans' "Contract With America," as well as for the broader mission of the new Republican-led Congress.

"This is sort of the centerpiece of what this Congress is all about," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, said of the constitutional amendment, which would require the federal budget to be balanced by 2002 or within two years of ratification by 38 states.

Even if the amendment is approved by Congress, it is likely to face rough going in the state legislatures. State lawmakers are already watching with concern as the Republican House begins to hack away at federal programs that the states would have to pay for or do without.

President Clinton remained mostly out of the battle, until last weekend, when he attacked the proposed amendment on several occasions, warning that the Republicans plan to "make war on kids." But the president has offered little more than background noise to a high-pitched lobbying campaign that is focused on individual senators, particularly those Democrats facing re-election next year.

Five of the 46 Democrats are still unofficially uncommitted, but the four besides Nunn are being counted in one camp or the other. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota are being counted as leaning in favor; Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky are being counted with the opponents of the amendment.

All four have joined with Nunn in trying to win a change in the amendment that would bar the federal courts from interfering with the budget process.

Of 54 Republicans senators, the only opponent of the proposed amendment is Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on Nunn's proposed change Tuesday before a formal tally on the amendment itself. But the Republican leadership is resisting any changes in the amendment because that would require it to be returned to the House for a second vote and slow its momentum.

Instead, Hatch sent Nunn written promises Monday from Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to address his concerns in separate legislation to be taken up later this year. The Republican leaders also submitted to the Georgia senators a draft version of the proposed bill.