Republicans lacked one vote to make the 67 needed to pass the bill, forcing the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole, to recess the body moments after it began work for the day.
"This will be a victory for the people," Mr Dole said, as he called the recess so Republicans could press on negotiating with Democrats who carry the swing votes. "This is no time for retreat," he added. The bill calls for a constitutional amendment requiring the budget to be balanced by 2002, or two years after 38 of the 50 states ratify it.
The proposed amendment, which would be the 28th in the history of the constitution, has become a showdown between President Bill Clinton and the Republican congress.
Mr Clinton has attacked Republicans for refusing to spell out what budget cuts they would make to balance the budget. Mr Clinton reaffirmed his opposition to the popular measure - about 70 per cent of Americans support it, according to polls - saying the amendment "runs the risk of turning recessions into near-depressions."
Mr Clinton argues that the budget should be balanced through gradual cuts instead of a constitutional amendment.
The deficit hit $203bn in 1994. According to White House estimates, it will hit $197bn in 1996. The national debt stands at $4.8trn dollars.
Mr Clinton said passage of the amendment would tie the government's hands from using deficit spending to stimulate the economy if the country sank into depression. Future deficits would require a three-fifths vote by both houses of Congress.
The Republicans will focus on four Democrats seeking assurances that the massive social-security fund will not be tampered with in an effort to balance the budget. "The opportunity to pass this is in the hands of those who propose it," Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, one of the four, said. Mr Dorgan said he cannot not support the bill until the Republicans agree that social security will be protected.
Republican Senator Larry Craig, a sponsor of the measure, said a final vote on the bill could come in the next two days. Mr Dole, who is expected to run for president in 1996, could be facing his first loss on an issue since becoming Majority Leader in January. He was circumspect on when the vote would happen, saying only that "it could" come this week. If the measure fails, he has threatened to bring it back up when the presidential contest draws closer.
If the Senate approves the amended measure, it will be sent back to the House of Representatives, which passed it by 300-132 last month.Reuse content