The House yesterday narrowly defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned federal budget deficits as Democratic budget negotiators prepared for discussions with Bush administration officials about raising taxes.
The 279 to 150 vote in favor of the amendment was seven votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to approve a revision to the Constitution. The measure was supported by 110 Democrats, most Southern conservatives, and 169 Republicans. Only five GOP lawmakers voted against it.
Lawmakers who voted against the amendment will get a chance to go on record in support of balanced budgets today when the House considers a proposed law requiring spending to equal revenues beginning in fiscal 1992. It is expected to pass the House but to be bottled up in the Senate.
As the House debated the proposed amendment, Democratic budget negotiators held meetings in the Capitol to discuss tax-raising options in preparation for a possible White House meeting today with President Bush before he leaves on a trip to the West, participants said.
No decisions were made, participants said.
Serious discussions about raising taxes could begin later this week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) predicted after a luncheon meeting with House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.).
"The administration should be ready to put a proposal out and we should be ready to put a proposal out," Rostenkowski said.
The packages are likely to be designed to raise between $20 billion and $25 billion in new revenue in fiscal 1991, congressional bargainers said. Budget negotiators are hoping to pare the coming fiscal year's deficit by between $50 billion and $60 billion.
The possibility that the administration would drop its demand for a reduction in the rate at which capital gains are taxed in exchange for Democrats not seeking to increase the top income tax rate has "gone out the window," Rostenkowski said.
Backers of the proposed balanced-budget constitutional amendment argued that the size of the federal budget deficit showed the failure of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-cutting law. Only a constitutional remedy could solve the problem, they said.
"Give us a constitutional reason to find the guts to do what needs to be done," Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), a prime cosponsor of the proposed amendment, asked of his colleagues. "It's time to have an additional tool, not another statute."
"Legislation has not worked," said Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (N.Y.), the House Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican. "Huge budget deficits have proved intractable."
"This body has lost the political will to be fiscally responsible," said Rep. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), another leading cosponsor and a Senate candidate.
But opponents said the proposed amendment was meaningless, mandating a result without offering a solution.
"The amendment is filled with soft and fuzzy feel-good words that have no more legislative meaning than a bumper sticker saying, 'Have a nice day,' " said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.). "It will do damage to the Constitution that we have lived under for 200 years."
"It won't balance the budget," said Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Calif.). "It's just more smoke and mirrors."
The proposal would have required Congress to set into law at the beginning of each fiscal year a projection of how much money the government would collect. Spending would not have been allowed to exceed that estimate unless three-fifths majorities of the House and Senate approved.
It would have also required a roll-call vote on any tax increase and three-fifths House and Senate majorities to approve a rise in the government's borrowing limit. The provisions would have taken effect beginning with fiscal 1995 and would have been waived by a declaration of war.
Lawmakers rejected, 244 to 184, an attempt by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) to modify the proposed amendment to require three-fifths majorities to approve any tax increase.