Amendment to balance budget likely to fail today

March 01, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- This year's version of the balanced budget amendment appears headed for defeat in the Senate tonight, with many senators likely to back a less stringent alternative that is given an even smaller chance of winning the necessary two-thirds majority.

Concluding a week of debate on the topic, the Senate's rejection of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget would doom action on the issue for the rest of the year.

Although the House may vote later this month to endorse the amendment, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine said that there would not be a second vote in the Senate.

Supporters of the amendment, led by Sen. Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat, were not ready yesterday to concede defeat.

But they acknowledged they were at least four votes short of the 67 required, without much hope of picking up the votes of four still-undecided senators.

Two of the four, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., and Sen. James R. Sasser, D-Tenn., were described by aides as more likely to opt for an alternative amendment sponsored by Sen. Harry M. Reid, the Nevada Democrat.

Critics have called the Reid alternative so weak as to provide little more than political cover for lawmakers reluctant to vote against the Simon amendment for fear of being portrayed as spendthrifts.

"They're doing their best to siphon off our support, and they're having an effect, clearly," said David Carle, a spokesman for Mr. Simon. "We're doing our best to tell senators the Reid amendment is nothing but cover -- and not very good cover at that."

Maryland's senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, have said they oppose Mr. Simon's balanced budget amendment.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who has been '' passionately leading a crusade against the Simon amendment, said the vote would be "very close," but that the momentum is going his way.

"This amendment is very popular because a lot of people don't understand it, but it is very dangerous to the fabric of our country," Mr. Byrd said in an interview.

bTC Mr. Byrd and other opponents contend that the amendment is phony at best and, at worst, would restrict Congress' power of the purse, leaving critical decisions about taxes and spending to the president and the courts.

The amendment would force Congress to cut spending or raise taxes, which many lawmakers find politically difficult.

At issue is a question born of the Reagan years when the budget deficit exploded: How can the federal government be forced to live within its means?

A series of budget limits have been imposed by legislation, the strictest of which came last year in the penny-pinching atmosphere inspired by tax-increase proposals and the populist heckling of Ross Perot.

But the drive to designate the Constitution as the ultimate enforcer of budget discipline has grown stronger as more and more lawmakers vowed in their election campaigns to support it.

The balanced budget amendment failed by one vote in the Senate in 1986, the last time it was voted on.

When the Senate debate opened last week, Mr. Simon had more than 50 co-sponsors and an additional dozen private commitments. The situation was so worrisome to Mr. Byrd and Mr. Mitchell that they supported the Reid amendment as an alternative for nervous colleagues.

Neither the Simon amendment nor the Reid amendment could take effect until three-fifths of the state legislatures vote to ratify them. The chief distinction between the two approaches lies with the number of exceptions that would be allowed.

Under the Simon amendment, a three-fifths majority of each house of Congress would have to approve spending in excess of income, except in a national emergency.

The Reid amendment would bar the diverting of Social Security tax revenue to balance the budget, would permit deficit spending in periods of slow economic growth and would allow Congress to borrow money for highways and other "capital" investments.

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