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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress, Clinton Begin Duel On Budget

WASHINGTON -- One day before U.S. President Bill Clinton presents his plan for reaching a balanced budget within five years, Congress will begin debating the constitutional amendment that would require it.

Clinton is expected to address budget issues in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, and he presents his budget Thursday. Wednesday, the Senate is scheduled to consider the balanced-budget amendment, a notion that has been argued for decades. But buoyed by last fall's election results and public concern for the national deficit, congressional advocates are more optimistic than ever that they can pass the amendment.

The difference between passing and failing is about a half-dozen votes. It could be as few as a single vote in the Senate and, in the words of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, "three guys and Adam Smith in Washington" in the House. This battle is as much -- if not more -- political as it is philosophical.

It will be joined at some point by Clinton, even though he has no legal role in the legislation. Constitutional amendments go from Congress directly to state legislatures; 38 states must ratify them. Clinton opposes the measure and in a letter to Congress last week argued that it would threaten the elderly and pointed to substantial progress in balancing the budget in the past four years -- without the straitjacket of a balanced-budget amendment.

A Senate vote probably will not come for weeks, until supporters are more confident of winning.

Last week, there were hints at the difficulty facing the measure. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved it, but several senators said they voted for it just to expedite the full Senate debate. For example, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who had opposed the measure in the past but switched and voted for it two years ago when he was up for re-election, says he's looking for revisions to the current version. He, like other Democratic leaders, wants to exclude the Social Security trust fund from the balanced-budget calculation.

"He's in the 'yes' camp," said Biden spokesman Larry Spinelli, but Biden told the committee it may take a few tweaks in the amendment to secure his vote.

The proposal has wide public support. "It's a symbol of fiscal restraint and conservatism," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "Guys who are about to come up [for re-election] invariably switch their vote for the amendment and then switch back." For example, senators Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, Ted Stevens, and former senator Nancy Kassebaum, along with Biden, were the "up for re-election" switchers in 1995, when it failed in the Senate by one vote. Kassebaum has since retired.

Rothenberg said he would be watching Harkin and Baucus particularly closely as the Senate debate ensues.

In the House, which has scheduled a vote on the amendment Feb. 26, Armey is publicly optimistic, but Republican leaders privately worry they don't have the votes. Some Republicans who voted for the amendment in 1995, including Representative Mark Neumann of Wisconsin, now want to change the amendment to protect the Social Security Trust Fund.