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With Election Gains, GOP Looks At Prospects for Key Legislation

By Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

An infusion of conservative activists in the Senate has made Congress a more hospitable place for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and other Republican favorites that have narrowly failed in the past.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has struck a largely conciliatory note by promising to work with Democrats and the White House on a broad variety of budgetary, tax, and social issues if they continue to steer a centrist course. But even without cooperation, their increased Senate majority - up by two seats - gives the Republicans more confidence that they can achieve long-sought goals opposed by President Clinton.

And although House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will have a smaller majority than he enjoyed in pushing the "Contract With America" in the 104th Congress, Republicans say they expect again to pass many of these measures, including the balanced-budget amendment, with conservative Democratic support. Yet history has shown that margins on these high-profile initiatives dwindle as the final vote nears, and it is uncertain whether this will happen again.

An aide to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), chief sponsor of the balanced-budget amendment in the past, described prospects for Senate passage of the measure next year as "dramatically improved."

Equally optimistic were supporters of an amendment to prohibit burning or otherwise desecrating the American flag, a measure that passed the House overwhelmingly in early 1995 but failed in the Senate by three votes later in the year.

For proponents of a ban on a procedure for certain late-term abortions, vetoed by Clinton last summer, the elections had a mixed outcome. Support for the ban increased slightly in the Senate, which failed to override the veto, but declined in the House, which did vote to override it.

Even less certain was the effect the elections may have on campaign-finance reform. A Senate bill foundered last year on a GOP filibuster, while the House failed to consider a measure.

Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats have pressed for passage of a balanced-budget amendment since the 1930s, arguing it is the only way to impose fiscal discipline on the government. Clinton and Democratic leaders insist the amendment is unnecessary to eliminate the deficit and that its enactment would straitjacket the government in times of economic or international crisis. The amendment became a rallying cry for conservative Republicans after the GOP takeover of Congress two years ago, and Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole campaigned on it.

Backers of the amendment say they scored a net increase of four votes in the Senate in last Tuesday's election. But an administration official said last week that Clinton remains strongly opposed. Congress does not need presidential approval to pass constitutional amendments; a two-thirds majority in both houses can send amendments to the states for ratification.

To improve their chances of success, Senate Republican leaders may try again to placate Democrats such as Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who refuse to vote for a balanced-budget amendment unless they are given guarantees that the huge annual surplus in the Social Security trust fund is not part of the calculation. For years, the government has masked the true size of the federal deficit by taking credit for the trust fund surplus at the end of each fiscal year.

An amendment banning flag desecration has been on the GOP agenda for at least a generation but went nowhere until Republicans took control of Congress in 1995. The House easily got a two-thirds majority and the Senate just missed, and this year's election added at least one Senate vote.

Late-term abortion, an emotional issue in the outgoing Congress, should lose none of its potency next year. "I don't think two-thirds is out of the question in the House," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, but "in the Senate, it will be difficult." He said anti-abortion forces had gained at least two Senate votes and would seek "conversions" among current opponents.

In campaign-finance reform, supporters were optimistic, even though at least a dozen previous efforts at cleaning up federal election law have foundered on partisan disagreements. Despite the most recent setback last summer, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) intend to reintroduce a bipartisan bill on the first day of the new Congress, hoping to take advantage of lingering outrage about excesses in this year's campaign.