WASHINGTON -- The most far-reaching item of the Republican agenda -- a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget -- appears headed for approval in the House today after a skirmish yesterday over whether to make it harder to raise taxes than to cut spending.
"This is probably the most important vote you will cast in your time in Congress," Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon of New York, chairman of the Rules Committee, told his colleagues as they opened debate on the top-priority proposal in the Republicans' "Contract with America."
"It's going to do what the American people want -- balance the budget."
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic VTC leader, also underscored the stakes involved.
"This bill will affect people's lives more than anything else you do," said Mr. Gephardt, who complained that the Republican majority was rushing the amendment through for fear of losing support.
A bipartisan combination of Republicans and swing Democrats, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, was poised to deliver the 290 votes required for House approval of the amendment, which would require a balanced budget by 2002.
"The issue of a balanced budget is not a conservative one or a liberal one, and it is not an easy one," said Mr. Hoyer, who said he fears the consequences of a national debt that is headed toward $5 trillion. "But it is an essential one."
The constitutional amendment is intended to give Congress the political will to do what it has been unable to do on its own: stop spending more money than it has.
Once approved by the House, the amendment will be taken up by the Senate, where Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and perhaps the fiercest opponent of the proposed amendment, has made clear that he intends to delay action as long as possible.
But last year's election, which gave the Republicans control of Congress, put the balanced budget amendment in the most favorable climate it's ever had for winning approval in both houses and moving on to the states for possible ratification.
Meanwhile, House Republican leaders pressed a group of maverick GOP moderates yesterday to stand with the party in support of a controversial provision of the amendment to require a three-fifths "supermajority" vote in both houses to raise taxes. House leaders are fighting an uphill battle to pass that provision, and Senate Republicans have already declared that the provision cannot win the 67 votes needed in the Senate.
But House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia says he wants the Democrats to be blamed if the tax clause is defeated.
"They really want the three-fifths," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a freshman Republican from Baltimore County who supports the provision. "Newt told us this morning, 'Trust me on this.' "
Many Republicans, particularly the freshmen, argue that requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes is important in putting pressure on Congress to cut spending.
"No one . . . seriously questions whether we should balance the budget; the question is how we should do it," said Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who is chief sponsor of the tax provision. "This puts the emphasis not on raising taxes, but on cutting spending."
Some moderate Republicans and many of the Democrats who support the idea of a balanced budget amendment say they believe the supermajority requirement is a dangerous precedent that could be applied to any unpopular idea.
"I just don't think it belongs in the U.S. Constitution," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey.
If approved by Congress and ratified by at least 38 states, the balanced budget amendment would require the president to submit each year a budget in which proposed spending matches expected revenue.
For Congress to be able to spend more money than it has, 60 percent of the members of each house would have to vote to waive the balanced budget requirements. An exemption would be granted in case of war, or a military conflict that poses "imminent and serious military threat to the national security."
President Clinton, who opposes the amendment in principle, has decided not to fight the issue, apparently because he likely could not win and would be expending political capital he needs for other causes.
Democratic leaders in Congress, however, are trying to fight the amendment by demanding that the Republicans first specify what cuts they would make over the next seven years to wipe out the budget deficit.
"If the Republicans stick to their contract, they will have to cut more than $1.3 trillion in nonmilitary programs over the next seven years," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat. "Our children and their parents have a right to know the fine print of the contract."
But the Republicans, who have promised to put together a five-year budget-cutting plan that will lead to a balanced budget by 2002, say they need the discipline of the amendment to win agreement on those cuts.