Balanced Budget Vote Postponed

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Senate Republicans have abruptly postponed a vote on the balanced budget amendment, avoiding an apparent one-vote defeat and gaining more time to convert at least one more senator to support the historic measure.

The delay came at the close of an extraordinary day of public oratory and private arm-twisting Tuesday. 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, while onlookers strained to read lips, facial expressions and body language.

Whether amendment backers can win the vote of Democratic Senator Kent Conrad remains to be seen. They were to meet with him again Wednesday in hopes of persuading him to support the amendment by satisfying his chief demand that the Social Security Trust Fund would not be used to help balance the budget.

But Conrad said after the Senate recessed for the night: "I don't see ... a prospect for there being a meeting of minds."

If the Republican-controlled Senate fails to approve the amendment, which the Republican-dominated House has passed by a vote of 300 to 132, it would be a serious setback for the Republican legislative agenda. The balanced budget amendment was the top priority in the House Republican campaign manifesto, "Contract With America," and was a leading issue for Senate Republicans.

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 Senator Mark Hatfield, the one Republican opposed to the amendment.

It was unclear when a final vote would come. Some Republican senators said after Tuesday night's tumultuous session that it definitely would take place Wednesday but Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said only: "Maybe this week."

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 by the states, whichever is later.