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Don't look back, that balanced budget amendment is gaining

The peak is finally in sight. Backers of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget are now just two states short of forcing Congress to call a constitutional convention on their issue.

But the last few hundred feet are always the hardest - and a Monitor survey shows the convention drive will have a very difficult time reaching the top.

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''Presently, we seem both closer to and further from our goal than ever before,'' admits Ohio state Rep. Michael Fox (R), a balanced budget amendment proponent.

The push is as close to success as it has ever been. Missouri, last month, became the 32nd state to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to consider the balanced budget amendment. If only two more states approve similar calls, Congress will have to call such a meeting.

Much of official Washington seems blithely unaware of this possibility. But the situation concerns at least one high-ranking administration official - Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan.

''This thing could suddenly jump on us,'' Mr. Regan told a breakfast meeting of reporters last week. In eight states, he pointed out, a convention call has passed one legislative house, but not the other.

''It would certainly cause a lot of confusion - a constitutional convention in 1984, a presidential election year,'' said the secretary.

But the convention drive is far short of success, say its supporters. It appears stalled in just about all the states that haven't yet voted to support it.

The balanced budget amendment is an issue backed mainly by Republicans. Of the states which have yet to join in the chorus calling for a constitutional convention, only one - Vermont - has a state legislature completly controlled by the GOP.

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Though the balanced budget convention drive dates back to the mid-'70s, the Vermont Legislature didn't consider the issue until this year, says Vermont Rep. Peter Giuliani (R), sponsor of the resolution and chairman of the state Ways and Means Committee.

More pressing fiscal matters kept the convention call from coming to a floor vote, says Mr. Giuliani. He gives it a ''50-50'' chance of passing in 1984, pointing out that Vermont Republicans are fairly liberal and tend to squabble among themselves.

As Secretary Regan points out, eight states have passed the convention call through one-half of their legislature. Of these, Kentucky holds the most promise , say balanced budget amendment supporters.

The convention resolution passed the Kentucky Senate in 1980, and again in ' 82 (the Legislature meets only in even years). An aide to the state's GOP leadership is lukewarm about the resolution's chances in 1984.

If both Vermont and Kentucky vote to join in the effort, the constitutional convention drive will succeed in reaching its goal of 34 states. But there is little margin for error, as the balanced budget amendment outlook in all other states is bleak.

A shift in state legislative power to Democrats is a big reason for the slowing momentum. In the 1982 elections, Democrats gained control of 11 state legislative chambers.

The Ohio Senate, for instance, passed the convention call in 1981. At that time, it was controlled by Republicans. Now Democrats, who already control the state's House, have taken power. Approving a constitutional convention call is ''impossible in this state,'' admits an aide to state Sen. Donald Lukens (R), a supporter of the resolution.

The West Virginia Senate also approved the drive in '81. Now, its Legislature ''is far too liberal to embrace that kind of conservative approach,'' says Sen. Odell Huffman (D).

In California, Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington - the other states where one legislative house voted for a constitutional convention - Democratic opposition appears to have blocked the drive.

The remaining states of the Northeast and Upper Midwest that haven't yet addressed the issue are thought too intrinsically liberal to consider it seriously, supporters say.

But balanced budget amendment devotees say they have one more trick up their sleeve - citizen initiatives. In California, the National Tax Limitation Committee is forging ahead to pick up the 384,000 signatures needed to put the issue on the June 1984 ballot. Residents would vote on whether the Legislature should approve the convention call.

Similar drives are being planned for Washington, Montana, Ohio, and Michigan.

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