Congressional leaders started ringing alarm bells for their battered budget-control process again yesterday as a $10 billion package of spending cuts and revenue measures lay trapped in a political vise in the House Rules Committee.
"I think it's in great jeopardy," said Rules Committee Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) after Democratic leaders failed in an attempt to reverse a Tuesday vote opening the package to a politically popular pension amendment on the House floor.
As a result, House action on the package, which had been scheduled for this week, was put off at least until after Congress returns Aug. 18 from its recess for the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, the Budget Committee scheduled a special meeting this morning to probe for a way out of its latest crisis.
The pension amendment, supported by a coalition of five Republicans and three Democrats on the rules Committee, would restore $756 million to continue living-cost adjustments twice a year for retired federal workers.
"It is the thread that would unravel the whole garment," said Wendell Belew, counsel to the House Budget Committee, warning that the amendment could easily provoke pressure for other backsliding proposals that would gut the budget cost-cutting package.
The process of budget "reconciliation," whereby spending and taxes are tailored to meet budget goals, was touted as a major test of Congress' will to control deficits to combat inflation. "Destruction of reconciliation could destroy the budget process," Bolling said yesterday.
Reconciliation, when Congress is using for the first time this year, requires committees in both houses to come up with $6.4 billion in spending cuts and $4.2 billion in revenue-raising measures. One of the principal committee offerings was annual, rather than the current semi-annual, increases in federal pensions, thereby saving $756 million.
Pension cuts were approved by the Senate, but the House Rules Committee unexpectedly voted 8 to 7 to allow a floor vote on the pension amendment. Bolling halted the meeting in hopes of reversing the vote.
Enlisting Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) to lean on his Boston Democratic colleague, Rep. Joe Moakley, Democratic leaders tried in vain to switch just one vote within their ranks on the committee. They blame their failure on what they charged was GOP determination to scuttle the majority's control of the budget process. "I think their purpose is to try to demonstrate that the Democrats can't function . . . to control the budget," said Bolling.
The six-year-old budget process has been severely strained this year as Congress first attempted to produce a balanced budget to help fight inflation and then had to cope with a deficit caused by the recession. One of the year's main achievements had been the spending discipline embodied in the "reconciliation" package, which until now had enjoyed greater success than many had predicted.
Several sources speculated yesterday that "reconciliation" problems could make it even more difficult than before for Congress to pass a final budget resolution before the November elections, thereby adding to already heavy pressures for a post-election session.