Legislation to "fix" the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-control law was pulled back for an overhaul yesterday as senators balked at giving the president's Office of Management and Budget what they regard as excessively broad enforcement powers.
Several hours after Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) expressed hope for quick passage of the revision proposal, it was sidetracked -- possibly until the middle of next week -- to allow time for negotiations on possible new limits to OMB's discretion in carrying out the law.
"It was pretty clear that it the proposed revisions wouldn't pass without some changes," said a senatorial aide involved in the talks. But he and others expressed optimism that a compromise would be reached.
The law sets annual deficit-reduction targets in order to achieve a balanced budget over five years and requires automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to achieve the targets if Congress fails to do so. The General Accounting Office, generally regarded as an agency of Congress, was empowered to implement the cuts.
After the Supreme Court objected on separation-of-powers grounds to the GAO acting as chief enforcer of the law, the original sponsors, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) proposed to transfer the authority to OMB, which would act with "due regard" to findings from GOA based on earlier assessments reached jointly by OMB and the Congressional Budget Office.
Although Gramm contended that the OMB would play a strictly "green eye-shade," or technical, role, other senators, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), warned that its powers could be considerably broader than that.
After a similar warning was raised on the Senate floor by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who played a key role in tightening spending cutback provisions when the original bill was passed last year, Dole agreed to lay the bill aside until a compromise could be reached.
"Everyone agreed we shouldn't give OMB any more discretion than we have to," Levin said, predicting language could be drafted to minimize OMB's authority while still meeting the Supreme Court's ground rules.
Compromise options under study were reported to include limiting OMB's enforcement powers to one year while a permanent solution is worked out, as proposed initially by Chiles. Negotiators also were exploring ways to confine OMB's powers within legislative limits set by Congress on such sensitive issues as the size of future deficits and the dimensions of defense spending cutbacks. One option would have future defense spending assumptions tied to spend-out rates in legislation Congress passed earlier this month to ratify earlier cutbacks under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.
The budget-law revisions are tied to legislation raising the federal debt ceiling, which must be passed before Congress recesses for the rest of the summer, theoretically on Aug. 15. But, as time passed in the dispute over budget issues, other potential amendments continued to surface, embracing foreign-policy issues affecting South Africa, Angola and arms control as well as domestic issues ranging from abortion and AIDs to an oil-import fee and labor-law problems.
Dole has been attempting to reach agreement with senators seeking strong sanctions against the white minority government in South Africa to keep the issue off the debt-ceiling measure, but so far those efforts have failed.