Budget Amendment Barely Loses in Senate
By Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar
The Senate yesterday rejected a proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution by a single vote for the second time in three years, as President Clinton and the Democrats prevailed in arguing that it would jeopardize Social Security and that it was not needed to eliminate deficits.
Once a rallying cry for the Republican Revolution, the amendment has lost much of its punch as the federal deficit has declined sharply in recent years and White House and GOP negotiators inch toward a possible balanced budget deal this year.
Republican proponents insisted passage of the amendment was essential to forcing Congress and the White House to balance the budget for the first time in 28 years. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) cited a Congressional Budget Office study showing Clinton's balanced budget plan would fall far short of its goal and declared, "If we're not prepared to step up and pass this constitutional amendment now, we're admitting . . . that it's not going to happen anytime soon."
Democratic opponents said despite Republican rhetoric, a budget deal could be negotiated without tampering with the Constitution. "If we don't have the courage to do what's right we don't belong here," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "Let's not slap this bumper sticker on the greatest constitution that was ever written."
The Senate voted 66 to 34 in favor of the amendment, but that was one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment. All 55 Republicans joined with 11 Democrats to support the measure.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) blamed the defeat on the GOP leaders' refusal to consider compromises. "Apparently they decided early on that they were not going to accommodate legitimate concerns, and, once they made that decision, it was impossible" to round up enough Democratic votes to pass the amendment, he said.
The balanced budget amendment, the cornerstone of the GOP's congressional agenda, would require a balanced budget by 2002 and every year after that and permit exemptions only if approved by a three-fifths super-majority in both houses.
Clinton pronounced himself "pleased" by the vote and used the opportunity to challenge Congress again to work with him to forge a plan to balance the budget without rewriting the Constitution.
"The constitutional amendment could have caused or worsened recessions, permitted a minority of legislators to hold the nation's credit-worthiness hostage, involved unelected judges in spending and tax policy and threatened Social Security and other vital benefits," he said in a written statement issued in Arkansas, where he was surveying tornado damage.
Clinton said he remains "committed to achieving the bipartisan goal of balancing the budget by 2002."
Though tempers grew frayed as the final vote approached, the outcome was foreordained last week when freshmen Democrats Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) announced their opposition to the measure, despite their repeated support for it while they served in the House.
Johnson and Torricelli, who were lobbied intensely by the White House and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), said they changed their minds after concluding the amendment would provide inadequate safeguards for the Social Security trust fund and because it would straitjacket the government in dealing with economic and national security crises and maintaining the nation's infrastructure.
Lott staked his prestige on passing the amendment, a goal that eluded his predecessor, Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). But instead of pulling a legislative rabbit out of a hat, as he boasted he would do, Lott conceded defeat early in the day and then blamed Johnson and Torricelli for misleading their constituents.
Torricelli responded in a floor speech that the majority leader had acted in bad faith when he said last week he might offer some last-minute changes in the Republican-crafted amendment to win Democratic support. "Each of us waited since Mr. Lott's comments for this effort at reconciliation," Torricelli said. "I regret to inform my colleagues that I received no such communication. . . . I assume therefore that Mr. Lott misspoke or there was something disingenuous about his effort."
The turnabout by Johnson and Torricelli was a stunning blow to the GOP leadership. But the Republicans' chances from the start were slim at best after Clinton and Democrats made it clear they would play the Social Security trump card.
Much as they did during the budget battle a year ago in portraying Republicans as the enemies of Medicare, Democrats this time charged that with a GOP-engineered balanced budget amendment in place, Congress would be forced to dip into the Social Security trust fund or reduce monthly benefits to meet the constitutionally mandated goal of balancing the budget. Lott and other Republicans attacked this as "scare tactics" designed to frighten senior citizens and baby boomers who will begin retiring early in the next century, but the tactics worked.
Polls showed that when voters were asked whether they favored a balanced budget amendment, more than three quarters responded that they did. But fewer than half the respondents said they would back the amendment if it would require lower Social Security benefits.
House Republicans have been so anxious to avoid a showdown over Social Security that they have kept the amendment bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee; it was uncertain yesterday when or if they would bring it to the floor.
In the Senate, Daschle and a handful of other Democrats who had once supported the amendment used their concerns about Social Security to justify blocking passage of the GOP version. "Under this amendment, we now know, Congress would be required not just permitted, but required to raid the Social Security trust funds to run the government," Daschle said yesterday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chief sponsor of the balanced budget amendment, fumed that opponents had shamelessly "demagogued" the issue and that the amendment, if approved, would provide the budgetary stability needed to protect Social Security.
While the vote was an embarrassment for Lott and Republicans, it also puts added pressure on Clinton and the Democrats to reach a budget deal. If negotiations fail, that could bolster efforts to resurrect the balanced budget amendment next year.
"It's a temporary setback, but we're not going to give up," said Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.). While the strong economy has "drained the intensity" of support for the amendment, "there will be a day of reckoning," he said. "If this country goes into recession, several issues will come surging out: failure to control big government, trade issues and failure to pass the balanced budget amendment."
Following the GOP takeover of Congress two years ago, the House approved the amendment as part of the Republicans' "Contract With America," but the measure failed in the Senate by one vote, when Republican Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) refused to go along with his colleagues. The amendment failed again last year by two votes, when Dole brought it up as part of the Republicans' election-year strategy.
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