THE BALANCED BUDGET amendment, a key piece of the GOP agenda, seems close to death in the Senate despite large public support and speedy House approval. One backer, Senator James Exon (D-Neb.), admits the Constitutional amendment is two to three votes short of the 67 needed to O.K. it, and momentum is with its opponents.
Senate nose counters say that to hit 67, when the vote comes up in late February, the amendment needs two Democrats whose onetime support has faded: John Breaux (D-La.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). Breaux, spooked by a recent Treasury study saying budget cuts would devastate his home state, now calls the amendment "fraudulent" and says he "may quite well" oppose it. Senate Republicans, who hold 53 of the chamber's 100 seats, are unlikely to persuade maverick Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), the lone GOP holdout.
The amendment could still be salvaged by a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) could win over more Democrats by exempting Social Security from any cuts. And there's a long-shot plan to inspire grass-roots pressure on undecided Democratic senators who voted against the amendment last year and are up for reelection in 1996. Among the targets: Joseph Biden of Delaware, Max Baucus of Montana, and Tom Harkin of Iowa.