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The Balanced Budget Amendment: Then and Now

It was like showing up for game seven of the World Series. And just for good measure, make it Cubs versus Red Sox.

In Congressional terms, this was the main event. As high as drama ever gets on Capitol Hill. The United States Senate was about to conduct one of the most-anticipated roll call votes in years. And no one quite knew the fate of a Constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment.

All 100 senators sat patiently at their desks for the clerk to alphabetically call their names. Reporters peered down onto the Senate floor from their perch above. Interested observers packed the public viewing galleries.

Congress is often like athletics. And no sport grants more power to a singular player than the pitcher in baseball. The pitcher dictates the pace of the game. Some work frenetically. Others plod along, wandering behind the mound to rub down the ball or go to the resin bag.

In baseball, nothing happens until the pitcher says it will.

Such is the case in the Senate and with the majority leader. And on that late February night in 1995, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) made his way to the mound and realized he just didn't have it.

For pitchers, it might be an issue of not being able to get loose or developing a blister while warming up in the bullpen. And as Bob Dole assumed the Senate mound, he knew that despite days of laboring, cajoling and whipping, he simply didn't have the votes.

Then Dole did something pitchers can't do. Rather than risk defeat on the balanced budget amendment, Dole did the unthinkable. Dole called the game.

An audible gasp filtered through the press gallery. Senators froze in their seats, shell-shocked at the dramatic turn of events.

At the time, South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle had been on the job less than two months as the Senate Minority Leader and Dole's counterpart. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) hadn't served as his party's floor leader for seven years. But that didn't matter. Byrd was a parliamentary master. And to the West Virginia Democrat, Daschle was just too green to challenge Dole over such an extraordinary decision. This called for a veteran, not some rookie just up from Tidewater.

Byrd blew past the neophyte Daschle and confronted his old adversary Dole.

"This is a sad spectacle," charged Byrd of Dole's maneuver. "This has every appearance of a sleazy, tawdry effort to win a victory at the cost of amending the Constitution."

But Dole's decision to postpone the vote salvaged the balanced budget amendment for his party.

For a moment.

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In the coming weeks, Congress is wrestling with a potential vote to increase the debt limit. And House Republican leaders are adamant they won't agree to a vote unless they can forge an agreement on a concrete framework with the White House and Congressional Democrats to harness government spending.

It's unclear what such spending restrictions might look like. But many Congressional conservatives are increasingly calling for a Constitutional Balanced Budget Amendment.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) threatens to hold any debt ceiling vote hostage until lawmakers adopt a balanced budget amendment. Meantime, senior House GOP leadership aides are skeptical of bringing any such plan to the floor, despite its popularity with fiscal conservatives.

Here's why: amending the Constitution is a bear. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds affirmative vote from both bodies of Congress. Three-quarters of all states must then adopt the same provision. So that means it's unlikely the GOP brass can use a balanced budget amendment proposal as a mechanism to curb spending in the current debt limit tussle.

But that doesn't mean you won't hear a lot about the balanced budget amendment in the coming days.

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The balanced budget amendment was the touchstone of the GOP's 1995 Contract with America. Republicans threatened to trim spending and this would impose spending cuts. Plus, the GOP finally had a chance at moving the proposal through Congress on the backs of its new House and Senate majorities.

The balanced budget amendment breezed to passage in the House in January, 1995 on a vote of 300-132. Many Democrats joined Republicans in crossing the required two-thirds threshold to amend the Constitution. But attaining the two-thirds plateau was another matter in the Senate.

The balanced budget amendment returned to the floor a few days after Bob Dole unceremoniously yanked it off the Senate calendar.

On March 2, 1995, the senators again gathered in their seats for the historic vote. But despite his parliamentary rain delay, Dole still hadn't conjured up the votes. The issue needed 67 votes for approval. Combined with the yeas of 52 Republicans Dole secured the support of 14 Democrats. But that only got him to 66. And try as he might, he just couldn't get to 67. Mainly because one senator stood in his way. One Republican senator.

The late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory described Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-OR) as "a notorious, chronic dissenter." Opposed to the Vietnam war, Hatfield had a record of voting his conscience if not his party. And Hatfield simply wasn't going to vote to alter the constitution just to balance the budget.

At the time, Hatfield was not just a veteran senator, but chairman of the fabled Senate Appropriations Committee which controls the federal purse strings. And he faced re-election in 1996.

As they say in the movies, "Vee have vays of dealing with your kind...."

Then-Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) broke the 11th commandment and openly criticized his fellow Republican. Lott argued that his colleague had an obligation to vote with the rest of his party. Upstart conservative senators suggested that the Republican leadership strip Hatfield of his committee chairmanship. Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) that year and hinted the party might put its money toward another candidate. Bob Dole convened a special Republican conclave to determine Hatfield's fate.

It didn't matter. Hatfield resisted the internecine revolt.

And then an extraordinary revelation....

Before the balanced budget amendment vote, Hatfield offered to resign.

Dole rejected his colleague's entreaty. And accepted defeat of the balanced budget amendment.

When the clerk called the roll, the finally tally was 65-35, not 66-34, one vote shy of the two-thirds requirement. Curiously, one Republican voted no with Hatfield, none other than Bob Dole.

No, Dole hadn't undergone an ecclesiastical conversion on the issue. But astute Senate observers knew exactly what Dole was doing. Dole changed his vote to try to salvage the balanced budget amendment for another day.

At the end of each Senate vote, you'll hear one senator "move to reconsider" the vote. The idea is that if the Senate is to ever "reconsider" a vote (revote the same issue) only a senator on the "prevailing" side of the issue may demand a do-over. So even though Dole initially voted in favor of the balanced budget amendment, he later switched his vote to no at the end. The "noes" won, defeating the plan. And thus, Dole was now on the prevailing side of the vote. That empowered the Kansas Republican to summon the balanced budget amendment back to the floor if he could ever excavate that 67th vote.

Dole never could. And the balanced budget amendment faded from the political stage until now, perhaps the most iconic item on the Contract with America to fail in the U.S. Senate.

Then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a 36-year-old freshmen at the time, was one of Hatfield's primary antagonists.

"The people who will stand in the way of this balanced budget amendment today will not be around long to stand in the way next time," Santorum warned.

Santorum was right. Hatfield retired in 1996. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) defeated Santorum in 2006.

The irony is that the tea party brand of conservatives who descended on Washington this year are even more dedicated to cutting spending than their 1995 predecessors. But just like Bob Dole on that winter night 16 years ago, the GOP still doesn't have the votes.

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