This could be the make-or-break week for the balanced budget constitutional amendment, as the Senate considers several crucial amendments to the proposal and possibly a still too-close-to-call final vote.
A CongressDaily survey of House members shows passage of the balanced budget amendment in that chamber remains up in the air as well. The Senate is expected to vote on Democratic alternatives this week, including a plan to exempt the Social Security trust fund from the balanced budget calculations. At last count, 65 senators were considered supporters of the constitutional amendment, with 67 needed to approve it.
However, BBA supporters lost a crucial vote last week, when freshman Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said he would not support the measure unless the Social Security amendment is approved. That left supporters and opponents focused on two other Democratic freshmen, Sens. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, as the key votes they must win.
Supporters of the plan to exempt Social Security funds from the balanced budget calculations point to a recent Congressional Research Service study as a possible turning point in the debate. That study said if the version of the BBA being pushed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Hatch passes, funds in the Social Security surplus could only be used to pay benefits if the amount used equals the amount of funds flowing into the trust fund.
The CRS study was "devastating" to the supporters of the Hatch plan, an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said last week, adding that he believes momentum is on the side of opponents of the Hatch proposal.
"Word is getting out that there are two amendments, one that protects Social Security and one that does not protect Social Security trust funds," the Dorgan aide said.
However, supporters of the Hatch proposal say the Social Security argument is phony, and that the only way to really protect Social Security is by passing the BBA. They argue that exempting Social Security would result in Congress having to find hundreds of billions of dollars in additional cuts to balance the budget.
If Senate passage of the constitutional amendment is uncertain, House approval could be even more dubious.
House Republican leaders postponed a markup of the legislation in the House Judiciary Committee, hoping that Senate approval would ease House passage of a "clean" BBA that does not contain the Social Security exemption.
A CongressDaily telephone survey of House members' offices over the past week shows the amendment currently has only 249 definite supporters, including 197 Republicans and 52 Democrats.
Two-thirds of the House, or 289 votes, is needed for approval.
Two Republicans, Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and John Hostettler of Indiana, have said they plan to vote against the constitutional amendment.
Eighteen Republicans said they still are undecided or would not say where they stand, with several saying they wanted the Social Security amendment attached or that they favor an amendment that would require a super majority vote for tax increases.
On the Democratic side, 16 members said they were undecided or would not say where they stand, while 98 said they oppose the constitutional amendment.