The Senate last night approved an increase in the national debt ceiling after adding a provision that would give Congress a chance to vote on balanced budgets in the future.
The debt ceiling bill-usually a routine measure-became the vehicle for the first serious airing this year of senatorial views on budget balancing, apparently one of 1979's most appealing political issues.
By votes that were much closer than expected, the Senate rejected a series of attempts to make future increases in the debt ceiling dependent on balancing the budget. Between 30 and 44 of the 100 senators appeared willing at different times to support strict, mandatory budget-balancing provisions during the four-day debate.
The provision the Senate did approve-by 57 to 42, the opponents generally favoring a tougher measure-will require the Senate Budget committee to produce balanced versions of the federal budget for fiscal years 1981 and 1982 by next month.
In subsequent years to Budget Committee will be required to draw up balanced budgets as alternatives for Senate consideration in the congressional budget process.
The measure also would require the president to submit an alternative balanced budget every time he submits a budget that is not in balance.
There is no requirement that the Senate adopt or even vote on these balanced budget proposal, but they will be available for consideration, and any senator will be able to call on of them up as a proposed version of the binding congressional budget resoultion.
This plan was devised by Sens. Russell B. Long (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), chairman of the Budget Committee, and Bob Packwood (R-Ore.).
Muskie suggested in debate that it would be more courageous for senators to see a proposed draft of a balanced budget before deciding whether they wanted to support one.
"It is easy to be for a balanced budget when you do not know whether that would reduce Social Security benefits, whether it would reduce veterans' benefits, whether it would require a tax increase in order to avoid those two results, whether it would require a reduction in health benefits or education benefits," Muskie said.
His Budget Committee could lay before the Senate exactly what programs would have to be cut-or what taxes increased-to balance government expenditures with revenues, Muskie said. Then members could decide if that is what they wanted to do.
Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who led the fight for a tougher measure, proposed making it a condition of future increases in the debt limit that the federal budget be in balance, or that two thirds of both houses of Congress agree that the debt limit could go up anyway.
Long and others attacked this idea as amounting to a gimmick that would give one-third plus one member of either body a veto over national policy. Long asked what would happen if a depression was in the offing or if money was needed to enhance national security-Should a minority beable to block majority will in such a case, he asked?
Dole modified his proposal to say that a three-fifts vote could prevail to raise the debt limit even if the budget was balanced. A motion to table - effectively kill - this idea squeaked by, 46 to 44.
The House has passed a routine increase in the debt ceiling limitation, and now must decide whether to concur in this new Senate idea. The debt limit ceiling now in force expires Sunday, so action is needed quickly to avoid default on some government obligations.
The Senate approved its debt ceiling bill last nigh, 62 to 33. It lifts the ceiling from $798 billion to $830 billion.