The Democratic-controlled House voted 354 to 15 yesterday to endorse the goals -- but not specific provisions -- of Senate-passed legislation to force a balanced budget within six years.
It did so as it sent the measure to a House-Senate conference, which is expected to begin difficult negotiations shortly after Congress returns Tuesday from its long Columbus Day weekend.
The Republican-sponsored House endorsement, in the form of instructions to House conferees, called for approval of "mechanisms for deficit reductions, including specific and mandatory budget goals for achieving a balanced budget within the next six years."
But it stopped short of embracing the exact Senate bill, in part, according to GOP aides, because an all-out blessing might have failed to obtain the necessary votes. There was skepticism over some provisions and confusion over others, along with reluctance to push the issue to the point of partisan confrontation, they said.
Conservative Democrats, who had joined with Republicans to provide a majority for President Reagan's 1981 budget cuts, were reportedly reluctant to endorse details of the bill. Liberals were more explicit. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) said she could support the endorsement because it didn't mention the name of the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who enraged many Democrats four years ago when he, then a Democrat, led the fight for Reagan's early budget cuts.
However, Republicans claimed that support for legislation similar to the Senate bill was overwhelming in the House. "The votes were out there on the House floor to do just about anything we wanted to do to get the budget revision process in place," said Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
As approved by the Senate Wednesday by a vote of 75 to 24, the bill would require the president to make across-the-board spending cuts under congressional guidelines unless fixed, declining deficit targets are reached. The goal is to reduce deficits from $180 billion to zero by fiscal 1991.
A leadership-appointed Democratic task force is working on counterproposals for the conference, including stronger limits on presidential power in making the cuts and greater flexibility during recessions. It is also considering a lower deficit limit for next year. Task force leaders said the proposals will be ready for submission when the conference opens.
Although Democratic as well as Republican leaders voted to endorse principles behind the Senate bill, many Democrats expressed misgivings. "What we're doing as politicians is finding a mechanism to do the dirty work for us," said Rep. Butler Derrick (D-S.C.), a Budget Committee member.
But House members of both parties left little doubt about the significance they attach to the measure and its impact on the way Congress conducts its fiscal business; the unusually long list of 48 House conferees is studded with most of the most powerful names in the House, including major committee chairmen.
Twelve of the 15 who voted against the balanced-budget instructions were from the 20-member Congressional Black Caucus. At a news conference afterward, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) accused the Democratic leadership of "shabby treatment" of the Black Caucus in ignoring its protests that the plan is a rollback of the Democratic social-welfare legacy.
The balanced-budget provisions are part of legislation increasing the debt ceiling by more than $250 billion, to $2 trillion. The debt measure must be passed by the end of the month when interim borrowing authority runs out, increasing pressure on the conferees to agree by then on the budget provisions.