WASHINGTON -- Conservatives who hate raising taxes and liberals who cannot stand to cut spending have joined to bring the Senate to within a handful of votes of passing a constitutional amendment later this month to require a balanced budget.
Sen. Paul Simon, the liberal Democrat from Illinois who is the measure's chief sponsor, is not predicting victory yet, but he said in an interview that he had detected a gradual increase in support. He has been pushing the measure for several years, and won a promise from the Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell of Maine, a firm opponent of the amendment, for a vote sometime in this Senate session, which may end by Thanksgiving.
The deficit issue has forced itself over the years into the consciousness of both the right and the left, and it is good politics to promise to do something about it.
While most people think that the only way to cope with the deficit is to both raise taxes and cut spending, each wing of this tenuous alliance argues that only the approach the other side dislikes need be used.
But the opponents, led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the very powerful Democrat from West Virginia, got a boost on Friday when President Clinton weighed in on their side. Mr. Clinton denounced the amendment as a "budget gimmick," and said it was so vague that appointed judges would end up making decisions elected lawmakers should take on.
Mr. Clinton's letter to congressional leaders said the amendment would hurt average American families and require some combination of "huge increases in taxes," "massive reductions in Social Security benefits" and "major cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that would make it impossible to pass meaningful health reform legislation."
While presidents have no veto on constitutional amendments, Mr. Clinton's intervention still matters, especially because 16 of the 20 senators who have not announced their position on the measure are Democrats. With 60 supporters identified through public statements and interviews and 20 declared opponents, the backers need only 7 of the undeclared senators to get the two-thirds majority an amendment must have under the Constitution. Opponents need 14 of them to defeat it.
The Senate is expected to vote in about two weeks on the measure, which would require a balanced budget in 1999.
If the Senate adopts the amendment, an equally close vote is expected in the House. In July 1992 supporters got 280 votes in the House, nine less than they needed. Democratic leaders then made an intense effort to defeat the measure.
Should both houses adopt the amendment, it would require the approval of the legislatures of 38 states within seven years to become part of the Constitution.
Mr. Simon told the Senate last Monday that the amendment was necessary to force lawmakers "to make some tough decisions." He said nothing "other than a constitutional restraint" would do that.
Under the amendment, the president would be required to send a balanced budget to Congress.
The measure's provisions could be waived when a declaration of war was in effect or when a joint congressional resolution was enacted declaring that the country was involved in a military conflict "which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security."