WASHINGTON -- Before a packed but hushed chamber, Senate Democrats defeated the balanced budget amendment yesterday, sending the centerpiece of the Republican reform agenda into limbo, possibly until just before next year's elections.
The vote ended a bare-knuckle political battle. The Republican effort to make good on a key campaign pledge was tripped up by Democratic leaders, who said the amendment would permit Congress to balance the budget with money intended for Social Security pensions.
"People don't want the Social Security trust fund to be raided," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who led the opposition during the monthlong debate.
"The amendment is a seductive but false and dangerous promise, nothing more."
The proposal, which had passed the House and required a two-thirds majority of 67 senators to be sent on to the states for possible ratification, failed on a vote of 65 in favor to 35 opposed. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who supports the amendment, voted against the measure in a procedural move that will enable him to have the Senate reconsider it later.
All but one of the 53 Senate Republicans supported the amendment, which would have required the federal budget to be balanced as early as 2002, unless three-fifths of the members of each house of Congress voted to allow a deficit. Thirty-four of 47 Democrats opposed it, including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.
The amendment's defeat was the first major setback for the Republican-led Congress in its campaign to shrink the federal government. Although House and Senate leaders pledged to press on with their ambitious campaign to cut federal spending by nearly $1 trillion over seven years, they acknowledged that the task has now become more difficult.
The defeat was a personal setback for Mr. Dole, a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination next year, who hopes to showcase his abilities as a leader and power broker.
Mr. Dole threatened to call the next vote on the balanced budget amendment shortly before next year's elections, so that voters would be reminded of which Democratic senators had helped defeat the proposed amendment, which opinion polls show has wide public support.
"This is not going to go away," Mr. Dole told reporters after the vote.
The vote offered no surprises. Senators rose one by one at their desks to cast their votes, which already had been made public.
The impending narrow defeat of the proposal, which had once been expected to pass with relative ease, became clear Tuesday night, when Mr. Dole called off a scheduled vote on the amendment for some last-minute arm-twisting.
The moment was nonetheless disappointing for longtime advocates of the proposal, such as Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat who joined nearly a dozen House Republican freshmen at the back of the Senate chamber during the roll call.
"This is a sad day in the history of our nation," said Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, another Democrat who had joined with the Republican majority in backing the amendment.
Republican leaders were quick to assess a share of the blame for their defeat to President Clinton, although the president played only a low-key role at the end of the debate in encouraging wavering Democrats to resist the amendment.
"President Clinton and a handful of Democrats have won, and the American people have lost," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
Mr. Clinton seemed eager to accept responsibility, contending that the Republicans were more interested in "rhetoric and gimmicks" than in reducing the budget deficit.
"The balanced budget amendment has been defeated because Republicans could not provide enough Democratic senators with the simple guarantee that Social Security would be protected," the president said in a statement he read to reporters soon after the vote.
Mr. Clinton was referring to the politically potent issue that allowed Democratic leaders to prevail in the final hours of the debate. Aided by a powerful and well-organized senior citizen lobby, they hammered home the message that Republican efforts to balance the budget depend on borrowing surpluses from the Social Security trust fund and might ultimately result in a reduction of benefits.
"All we ask is that we not rob the bank to pay the debt," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the balanced budget amendment last year but opposed it yesterday.
Mr. Daschle contended that the balanced budget amendment would have passed, with 70 Senate votes, if the Republicans had agreed to a provision separating Social Security funds from the rest of the budget.
Their failure to accept such a provision "makes me wonder whether [the balanced budget amendment] was just a bumper-sticker creation of the Republican National Committee," Mr. Daschle said.
Republican leaders argued that such a provision would have created an enormous budget loophole, which Mr. Dole said could easily be exploited by a big-spending president in the White House.
"If we had a real president down there, we might think about it," he snapped.
When pressed, many Republicans acknowledge that they need the Social Security surplus to mask the size of the deficit in other programs, which would otherwise be larger by about $70 billion a year.
Beyond that, Republicans assert, and many Democrats privately agree, the Social Security issue is just an excuse to deny Mr. Dole and the Republicans an important victory and find a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy winter for Democrats.
"Maybe they need it for political cover," said Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican.
Mr. Byrd and Mr. Daschle were said to be instrumental in prevailing upon swing vote Democrats to withhold their support from Mr. Dole.
Those key Democrats included Sens. Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota; and Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky.