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Budget amendment faces defeat today

This year's version of the balanced budget amendment appears headed for defeat in the Senate tonight, with many senators likely to back a less-stringent alternative that is given an even smaller chance of winning the necessary two-thirds majority.

Concluding a week of debate on the topic, the Senate's rejection of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget would doom action on the issue for the rest of the year.

Although the House may vote later this month to endorse the amendment, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, said Monday that there would not be a second vote in the Senate.

Supporters of the amendment, led by Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., were not ready to concede defeat. But they acknowledged they were at least four votes short of the 67 required, without much hope of picking up all four of the senators still undecided.

Two of those four, Democrats Joseph Biden of Delaware and Jim Sasser of Tennessee, were described by aides as more likely to opt for an alternative amendment sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Critics have called the Reid alternative so weak as to provide little more than political cover for lawmakers afraid to simply vote against the Simon amendment for fear of being portrayed as spendthrifts.

Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who has been passionately leading a crusade against the Simon amendment, said that the vote would be "very close" but that the momentum is going his way.

"This amendment is very popular because a lot of people don't understand it, but it is very dangerous to the fabric of our country," Byrd said.

The balanced budget amendment was last voted on in 1986. It failed by one vote in the Senate.