Setting up a dramatic announcement today by the lone Democratic holdout, the Senate Tuesday night defeated an amendment that would have exempted Social Security from balanced budget calculations, a proposal that Democrats say would have guaranteed passage of the balanced budget constitutional amendment.
The Senate's 55-44 defeat of the Social Security amendment by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the announcement by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., that she will support the BBA ensures that the decision of whether the constitutional amendment passes lies in the hands of freshman Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who remained uncharacteristically mum about his decision Tuesday evening. Landrieu's announcement means 66 senators now publicly support the BBA; 67 are needed for approval.
Torricelli is slated to hold a news conference later this afternoon. Many Democrats Tuesday speculated Torricelli will announce his opposition to the balanced budget amendment, even though he voted for it while a House member. And while senators contended they did not know how the New Jersey Democrat plans to vote, a key opponent of the Republican balanced budget amendment, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said, "I have a feeling we may win this again." A final Senate vote on the constitutional amendment is scheduled for next Tuesday.
Democrats had said they could guarantee that the constitutional amendment would receive at least 70 votes if the Social Security amendment passed. "The only way to protect Social Security ... is the way we are doing it," Reid said on the Senate floor.
However, Republicans have argued the Social Security exemption would create a large loophole. Senate Judiciary Chairman Hatch Tuesday said Social Security can compete better than any other program in battles for federal funding. Two Republicans, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voted for the Social Security exemption. Two Democrats, Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Charles Robb of Virginia -voted against it.
Republicans conceded the final vote may come down to Torricelli, although Senate Majority Leader Lott held out the possibility he may have a surprise senator who may change his or her vote.
"There's more than one senator considering how he will vote on final passage," Lott told reporters.
Asked whether Lott could be holding a vote in his back pocket if he needs it, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, one of the bill's managers, said, "I've never underestimated the ability of the majority leader."
And while Republicans have said they do not want to make changes to the balanced budget amendment, GOP leaders have reserved spots for four amendments to be offered on the floor to the constitutional amendment.
Republicans attempted to apply pressure on Torricelli Tuesday, citing his previous support.
Craig said Torricelli made the balanced budget one of the major issues in his campaign and that he voted for it three times. He said President Clinton may be trying to create a "fig leaf" for Torricelli by announcing the creation of a federal panel on capital budgeting.
Torricelli's New Jersey Senate colleague, Democrat Frank Lautenberg, said he is unsure of how the freshman will vote.
"I hope he'll join those of us against it," Lautenberg said, while declining to predict his colleague's vote.
"I'm not good at predicting these things," he added.
White House officials, meanwhile, did not take Landrieu's decision as a defeat.
"I think she made a principled decision based on what she felt was in the best interests of her constituents. She is a very strong believer in the balanced budget. So is the president of the United States, and we look forward to working with her as we actually balance the budget," White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry said.
"It's obviously going to be a very close vote, and we will continue to work hard to express our point of view," he said.
Mary Ann Akers also contributed to this report.