The House Republican rank and file would like to take charge of the drive to call for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
But House GOP leaders would like to rein in the enthusiasm of their colleagues and harness it to the more workhorse-like task of seeking to get Congress to pass a balanced budget.
That became clear yesterday after Rep. E.G. (Bud) Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, called Minority Leader John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) "completely wrong" in his objections to the constitutional amendment route. On Monday Rhodes called a constitutional amendment an oversimplified approach that would not work.
Shuster said 103 of 157 House Republicans had either co-sponsored legislation or gone on record in favor of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Shuster said he had "high regard" for Rhodes, but "I personally disagree with him. I think he is completely wrong."
It is not clear whether the split among Republicans and their leaders might dash GOP hopes of using the balanced-budget issue to regain ground lost to Democrats who are co-opting the fiscal conservative stance.
Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (N.Y.), ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, called talk of a serious split among House Republicans "silly. I think we see eye-to-eye. We're only disagreeing about the means. Many of us would like to use the pressure for a constitutional amendment to impose discipline on our body. We would not like to see it imposed from outside because we believe in representative government."
Conable opposes a constitutional amendment as "a meat-axe" approach that would take fiscal discretion out of the hands of the president and Congress.
And Rep. John B. Anderson (Ill.), chairman of the Republican conference, said he opposes a constitutional amendment, favoring legislation that would restrict federal spending to a percentage of the increase in the gross national product.
"I think John Rhodes and I have the better side of the argument and I hope we can persuade our brothers that a constitutional amendment is best left to (California Gov.) Jerry Brown," Anderson said.
But some Republicans, particularly the freshmen, were not so sanguine. "Frankly, the members of the Republican leadership that don't support this remind me of the legislators in California that didn't support Proposition 13," freshman Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said.
"We're not out for any vendetta. We're not out to criticize just to criticize. But we're not going to stop going forward on a constitutional amendment. If we have to make leadership moves of our own, we will."
Minority Whip Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) attempted to stay above the battle. Though he called the constitutional amendment process "an extreme" and said "we just can't escape the responsibility" of balancing the budget through the regular congressional process, he added, "I'm not about to throw cold water in the face of those who want to help me get that accomplished.
"I'm just not about to get tied down that way. We either lead the revolt or get crushed by it. We shouldn't rule out anything as a party."
Michel is preparing a package of rules changes that would restrain federal credit expenditures, put more items into the budget and establish a congressional balanced-budget mandate by requiring that when the budget comes up any amendment to increase the deficit would have to be agreed to by a super-majority, such as three-fifths of the House or Senate.