Backers of a balanced budget yesterday came within a whisker of getting the House to express itself in support of the idea as the House approved another increase in the federal debt limit.
Aided by the lightning-fast gavel of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), an effort to make it possible for the House to add budget balancing Language to the debt limit bill failed 201 to 199.
The House then agreed 212 to 195 to boost the debt limit for the next six months by $32 billion, from $798 billion to $830 billion.
Key supporters of the balanced budget effort said they would have won the cirtical test vote had it not been for what they considered to be significant concessions made by House leaders.
The leadership agreed that within the next few months there would be "substantial consideration and a vote on the balanced budget issue," something Democratic leaders were trying to avoid up until now.
What is not resolved in the concession is the vehicle for the issue, the precise language that a balanced budget proposal might take and what sanctions might be applied if a balanced budget was not reported by Congress.
Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), who along with Reps. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Del Latta (R-Ohio), was trying to offer a balanced budget amendment to the debt limit bill, said without the leadership concessions his proposal would have won yesterday. Jones said "20 to 30 western Democrats" agreed not to vote for his effort only after the leadership concessions.
A leadership source admitted later that "if everyone who wants to express himself on a balanced budget resolution" voted with Jones "we would have been defeated."
Jones and his colleagues had tried to make in order an amendment that would have said that beginning in fiscal 1981, Congress could not consider legislation to increase the debt limit until a balanced budget is agreed to or more than two-thirds of the House and Senate vote to allow a budget deficit.
But O'Neill declared the vote over the very second the 15-minute time period allowed for voting was up, thus blocking the move two votes short.
The budget amendment, had it won, would have been little more than an expression of sentiment since it would have been ruled out of order as not germane.
Republicans had tried to get a similar amendment to the debt limit bill passed on Feb. 28, but they failed by a wider margin of 222 to 197. But the debt limit increase also failed that day, making yesterday's snowdown necessary. The increase approved yesterday is $6 billion lower than the bill that had lost.
What made the balanced budget vote closer yesterday was the addition of Jones, a respected conservative Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. Fifty-four Democrats joined 145 Republicans in voting for Jones' move, while 200 Democrats and one Republican voted against it.
While the agreement to have a vote on the balanced budget issue is significant, it by no means assures passage of a balanced budget mechanism.
First of all, there are wide differences over how to do it. Jones prefers a spending limit of 20 percent of the gross national product, which he says would produce a budget of $605 billion in spending and a $48 billion tax cut in fiscal 1981.
Others want a mandated balanced lowing a deficit if two-thirds of the House and Senate ovte for it.
Secondly, the delay gives the Democratic leadership time to work against balanced budget proposals and at the same time, to have a hand in the type of proposal drafted.
The Senate is expected to pass the debt limit bill Monday to avoid forcing the Treasurey Dept. to cancel an auction of notes. The cancellation would be necessary if the bill is not sent to the White House by Tuesday.