WASHINGTON -- This was to be the year that the balanced budget amendment -- under active consideration since the early 1980s -- would finally be approved by Congress.
Given plenty of co-sponsors, a growing sense that Washington should balance its books, and a commitment from legislative leaders to let the issue come to the Senate floor next week, prospects for passage appeared good.
And at first blush, it might even have seemed that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, arch-foe of the proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, was being unusually sporting about the matter. The powerful Appropriations Committee chairman from West Virginia has scheduled four days of high-profile hearings on the issue this week.
But as usual, the wily West Virginian, who worries about the damage the amendment could cause to Congress, had something else up his sleeve.
A closer look at the agenda reveals that today's opening session and the two days of hearings that follow are devoted entirely to opponents. Only a couple of hours Friday morning have been set aside as an afterthought for Illinois Democrat Paul Simon and other supporters of the book-balancing scheme that Mr. Byrd finds so offensive.
Mr. Simon, chairman of the Judiciary Committee subcommittee that has already approved the bill, is firing back. He has scheduled three days of simultaneous, rival hearings also beginning today. These will feature only backers of the proposed amendment. Debate on the Senate floor is scheduled to begin next week.
Even before the first sound bite is recorded in this public relations battle, though, the betting on Capitol Hill is that Mr. Simon has been outfoxed.
On his side, Mr. Simon has 55 co-sponsors, polls showing strong public support for the proposed amendment, and chagrin among his colleagues over their own repeated failures to practice restraint. Even with the toughest spending limits now in place, the federal budget for the coming year will be $180 billion in the red.
Requiring that the government spend no more than it takes in is a tough concept to quarrel with in this atmosphere. As of yesterday, Mr. Simon was estimated to be within three to five votes of the 67 needed for Senate approval.
"I believe that the overwhelming body of evidence suggests that without a constitutional amendment, we will not face the difficult political decisions that must be made, and the nation's economic future will be in peril," Mr. Simon contends.
With the House of Representatives believed to be even more sympathetic to the notion that the Senate, the amendment had appeared to have a good chance for passage.
It's not a fair fight, though, because on the other side is Mr. Byrd, the Senate's most senior Democrat, channeling all his vast resources into a cause that is for him just short of a constitutional holy war.
He calls it the most potentially damaging amendment ever proposed. He notes that the balance would come from balancing spending against unreliable estimates of income. He argues that the three-fifths vote that would be required to spend in excess of the limit is a formula for the worst sort of legislative extortion -- with lawmakers able to hold one another's proposals up for the highest ransom. In the end, he warns, a deadlocked Congress would have to surrender its power of the purse to the president or to the courts.
"I support a balanced budget, and I want to lower the federal deficits," Mr. Byrd told his Senate colleagues last year in one of a series of lengthy floor speeches on the issue. "But the answer must not be to perform a lobotomy on our nation's most sacred principles of checks and balances and separation of powers . . . simply because we are frustrated."
Even if the amendment were approved by Congress this year, it would have to be ratified by at least 35 states and could not take effect until the year 2001 at the earliest.
That makes it an easier yes vote for some of Mr. Byrd's colleagues, but he calls it a "cop-out," a vote to delay making the tough decisions about cutting spending or raising taxes that are the only way to actually balance the budget.
So, the senator from West Virginia has decided to inject a little "reality" into the debate by pointing out, particularly to his colleagues on the Appropriations Committee, just how the balanced budget amendment would affect their pet needs.
At issue now is whether Mr. Byrd's particular form of persuasion will be successful in keeping enough senators in check to deny Mr. Simon his 67-vote total.
The West Virginian is not working alone. The Clinton White House has joined in full force, with a lobbying effort led behind the scenes by Robert E. Rubin, the president's chief economic adviser.
The California earthquake and last year's other disasters may prove the most persuasive lobbyists, however. An $8 billion emergency aid measure for California was held up for days last week as deficit hawks in both the House and Senate tried to talk their colleagues into making spending cuts elsewhere to pay for the clean-up expenses.
"Even though that failed, I think it sent a message to a lot of senators about what could happen if they had to get 60 votes every time there is an emergency," said Martin Corry, a lobbyist for the American Association for Retired People, which opposes the amendment.