WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans declined yesterday to punish Sen. Mark O. Hatfield for his renegade vote against the balanced budget amendment, calling it unfair and unwise to make him the scapegoat for the amendment's narrow defeat.
But many Republican senators said they considered the Hatfield controversy a second setback for the party because it diverted public attention away from the six Democrats who switched positions to vote against the amendment last week, after having supported a nearly identical proposal last year. The amendment fell one vote short of the 67 needed for Senate approval.
"I think it's a big mistake for us to focus on him," Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, said of the effort to punish Mr. Hatfield. "He's not the one who changed his vote."
Mr. Hatfield of Oregon, a five-term veteran who cast the lone Republican vote against the proposed constitutional amendment, easily escaped an effort by some junior senators to strip him of his chairmanship of the important Senate Appropriations Committee. A party caucus held yesterday to consider the proposal was transformed by Hatfield allies into a forum on the broader issue of party loyalty and leadership. No vote was held.
Mr. Hatfield described the session afterward as "a chance for people to get some things off their chests, which they did very liberally."
The 72-year-old moderate, who has often been at odds with more conservative members of his party, added: "There's a lot of frustration that exists about how slowly things move. . . . I'm sorry to be the focal point for that, but maybe I've performed a service for my party."
Not since 1924 has a senator been stripped of a committee post. The proposal to exact revenge on Mr. Hatfield made nearly all of the senior senators uneasy.
"No one was more upset with Mark Hatfield's vote than I was," said Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. "And I told NTC him that. But on the other hand, right is right, and there is no right way to do a wrong thing. It would be a wrong thing to deprive him of his chairmanship."
The drive to punish Mr. Hatfield was led by freshman and sophomore senators, many of them trained in the tougher tactics of the House. They worry about whether the Republican-led Senate has the discipline to undertake the government overhaul that they believe voters demanded last year.
"The balanced budget amendment is the cornerstone of what this party is trying to accomplish," said Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican who was just elected to a second six-year term.
Mr. Mack sent a letter, also signed by freshman Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, urging that Mr. Hatfield be denied his chairmanship for helping defeat the budget amendment.
"There is a different responsibility placed on members in leadership and positions of authority," Mr. Mack said. "I feel very strongly about that."
The official Republican line after the defeat of the balanced budget amendment was to blame President Clinton and the Democrats. But Mr. Dole and Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi aimed much of their fire at Mr. Hatfield.
Mr. Dole is a prospective candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, and he feared that his failure to keep all the GOP troops in line would be seen as a reflection on his leadership.
After a party luncheon Tuesday, Mr. Dole agreed to hold a special caucus yesterday to discuss Mr. Hatfield's future.
"We spent three days of press attention on the one Republican who voted against the balanced budget amendment and none on the 33 Democrats who voted against it, especially the six who flip-flopped," said William Kristol, a Republican adviser.
Mr. Hatfield was never counted among the potential supporters of the amendment. He voted for a balanced budget measure once, in 1982, but it gave him "heartburn," he said yesterday.
He said he doesn't believe that requiring a balanced budget would give lawmakers the courage they lack to cut spending.
But enormous pressure was applied on Mr. Hatfield as it became clear that Democratic support would fall short. During a meeting with Mr. Dole before the vote, Mr. Hatfield offered to resign from the Senate so the amendment could win approval with only 66 votes. Mr. Dole said he told him "that was not an option."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined the chorus yesterday of those who argued that the attention on Mr. Hatfield was misplaced.
"The people who defeated the balanced budget amendment were six liberal Democrats who had voted for the amendment in the past and who, now that it was going to pass, switched their vote to a no," the Georgia Republican said.
Three of the six Democrats who shifted their votes on the amendment were members of the Senate Democratic leadership, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Two others had campaigned for re-election last year partly on the basis of their support for the amendment, but were safely ensconced in new six-year terms.
All six said their opposition was based in part on the failure of the proposed amendment to stipulate an end to the practice of using Social Security surplus funds to disguise the size of the budget deficit. But that was true of last year's version amendment as well.
"This vote had nothing to do with Social Security -- it was all about beating Bob Dole," said Fred Graefe, a lobbyist allied with Mr. Daschle.