House vote advances budget amendment

January 27, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The House voted overwhelmingly last night to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, making good on perhaps the most far-reaching promise in the Republican "Contract with America."

GOP members whooped for joy as the vote climbed to 300-132, 12 more than needed for the two-thirds majority. The measure now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to encounter lengthy delays but ultimately pass.

The House vote marked a major victory for Speaker Newt Gingrich, although the Georgian and his new Republican majority lost a largely symbolic -- but highly visible -- battle to include a provision requiring a three-fifths majority to raise taxes rather than a simple majority.

"Changing America is hard work," Mr. Gingrich told reporters after the vote, noting that it was a bipartisan effort.

The speaker said he called former first lady Nancy Reagan after the vote so she could pass the word to her ailing husband, who had made a balanced budget amendment one of his top priorities 15 years ago.

Once approved by Congress, the amendment has to be ratified by the legislatures of 38 states to become law -- a less predictable process sure to be affected by concerns at the state level over the impact of a reduction in federal spending.

Even so, last night's vote -- which marked the first time ever that the House has passed a balanced budget amendment -- was a milestone. The provision was advanced in what appears to be the most favorable climate for enactment encountered by its backers in decades of trying.

"This is an idea whose time has definitely come," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican. "It puts everyone on notice that we must stop mortgaging the future. No more delays, no more excuses."

In the Maryland delegation, Democrats Kweisi Mfume, Benjamin L. Cardin and Albert R. Wynn opposed the provision. Democrat Steny H. Hoyer and the four Republicans -- Constance A. Morella, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest -- supported it.

Across the House, 228 Republicans and 72 Democrats supported the amendment. Two Republicans, 129 Democrats and one independent opposed it. (Because three Democrats were absent, only 288 votes were needed to pass the measure.)

House Democratic leaders, who fear that the balanced budget amendment will give lawmakers an excuse to dismantle social welfare programs, fought the measure but failed to stop it.

"I am concerned about the conservative political groups who in this country will exult because they will finally be able to shred the safety net constructed by Franklin Roosevelt," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

Approval of the amendment came after the House refused to impose a constitutional requirement for a three-fifths majority to raise taxes.

The 253-173 vote on the tax limitation provision drew near-unanimous support of House Republicans eager to assure that the balanced budget requirement does not simply increase pressure to raise taxes.

"The problem is not a lack of revenue; the problem is too much spending," said Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who led the fight for the tax clause. "The way to limit revenue is by $H limiting the ability to raise taxes."

But the tax clause lacked enough Democratic support to reach the two-thirds majority needed to approve a constitutional change.

"It was a very tough vote for me, for a lot of us," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, a leading Democratic sponsor of the balanced budget amendment who opposed the tax limitation provision. "It sounds good, but it would have had a lot of unintended consequences."

Republican Senate leaders say the controversial tax clause would have certainly caused problems for the balanced budget amendment in that body, where supporters have only the bare minimum 67 votes they need.

Despite protests against the tax limitation provision by moderate Republicans, only a handful voted against it. The limitation was supported by 220 of the House's 230 Republicans and 33 Democrats. Voting against it were 164 Democrats of the 204 Democrats and one independent.

In the Maryland delegation, all four Democrats opposed the provision. Three Republicans supported it, and Ms. Morella arrived on the floor too late to vote. But she said she would have opposed the tax limitation provision.

If approved by Congress and ratified by the states, the balanced budget amendment would take effect in 2002. It would require the president to submit a budget every year in which revenue matches spending. Congress could shift money around within categories but could not spend more than it has unless three-fifths of each house votes to do so. The deficit spending of the past three decades would be outlawed.

Exceptions would be made for war or an "imminent threat to national security."

Throughout a long day of debate, Democratic leaders offered a series of alternative proposals designed to protect social programs from the effects of the amendment.

Those alternatives -- all rejected overwhelmingly -- would have excluded Social Security from budget calculations, would have waived the balanced budget requirement when the unemployment rate exceeds 4 percent, and would have created a separate capital budget for roads and major building projects.

The most politically difficult change for Republicans to resist was the Social Security exemption proposed by House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Democratic Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan.

Mr. Gephardt charged that the Republicans had "a hidden agenda" that includes cutting Social Security, despite GOP promises not to touch it.

Democratic opponents of the amendment are "the masters of political fear -- scare the old people," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican. He contended that it is possible to balance the budget within seven years simply by slowing down the rate of federal spending.

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