GOP postpones vote on budget amendment

March 01, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Having failed in a public display of arm-twisting, Senate Republicans postponed a vote on a proposed balanced budget amendment last night because they were still one vote short of the 67 needed for approval.

"We still think there's some chance of getting" the deciding vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said as he announced to a stunned Senate that he was recessing the chamber until this morning, with a time for a new vote not yet clear. "We want to make every effort we can."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat who has battled often alone for nearly a month on the Senate floor to defeat the proposed amendment, reacted furiously. He accused Mr. Dole of breaking an agreement to vote because he was afraid to lose.

"This is sleazy, tawdry effort to win a victory at the cost of the Constitution of the United States," Mr. Byrd thundered. "This is no place for deal-making and back-room huddles."

A daylong cliffhanger over a constitutional change, which many senators described as the most important vote of their careers, ended after cloakroom negotiations broke down with Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, who the Republican leaders had hoped would provide the vote to assure their victory.

"He can't make up his mind," Sen. Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican, said later of Mr. Conrad. "He keeps changing what he wants."

The monthlong debate on the balanced budget amendment had just concluded, and the Senate was about to vote, when Mr. Conrad signaled to Republican leaders that his support was not yet nailed down.

Mr. Dole delayed the tally for 40 minutes as Mr. Conrad was waltzed into the Republican cloakroom. The entire Senate waited, and spectators gossiped in the galleries waiting for the action to unfold.

At issue was Mr. Conrad's concern that the pressure for a balanced budget might someday force the government to cut Social Security benefits in order to pay other debts. Like many other Democrats, he wanted a provision in the Constitution to exempt the Social Security trust fund.

Republican leaders offered to include the exemption, to take effect in 2008, in a bill separate from the amendment.

Just before the roll was about to be called on the amendment, Mr. Conrad told the Republicans he wanted the exemption to begin earlier and to be phased in.

Before the Republicans could respond, Republican staffers said, Conrad raised another issue -- his concern that the amendment makes no provisions for an economic emergency.

Mr. Conrad then consulted in the Democratic cloakroom with Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, then finally delivered the word to Mr. Dole that he would not be with him.

Last night, Mr. Conrad said there was little chance he would change his mind today. Mr. Conrad, who entered the last day of the Senate debate over the balanced budget amendment as one of five uncommitted Democrats, had been considered among the two least likely to support the amendment.

In January, the House approved the proposed amendment by a vote of 300-132. That set the stage for a Senate debate that has been marked by Democratic attempts to force Republicans to specify their planned spending cuts and to protect Social Security. Even if Congress approves the amendment, the legislatures of 38 states would also have to vote for it to become part of the Constitution, a difficult requirement to meet.

President Clinton, who interjected himself into the debate last weekend by appealing to some swing Democrats to oppose the measure, said yesterday that the best case that could be made for the balanced budget amendment is the "drunk in the liquor store argument: 'Every time I drive by, I'm going to go in and buy a fifth. You better board it up.' "

If approved, the amendment would require the federal budget to be balanced by 2002 or within two years of its ratification. Congress could waive that requirement with a vote of three-fifths of each chamber. An automatic exemption would be provided in time of war or "imminent threat" to national security.

Opponents warn that Congress, which has already evaded legislative attempts to curb spending, would find loopholes in the constitutional amendment as well. But supporters argue that the enforcement power is strengthened by a provision requiring a three-fifths vote to raise the debt ceiling, which lets the government borrow money to pay its bills.

Earlier yesterday, Republican leaders had agreed to make a change in the amendment to satisfy Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who wanted a guarantee that the courts could not step in and force taxes to be raised or spending to be cut if Congress failed to match spending to revenue.

The concession to Mr. Nunn also secured the support of Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, another of the uncommitted Democrats.

GOP leaders determined that the change would be accepted by the House.

Even if the amendment fails this week, Mr. Dole told his colleagues, the balanced budget amendment will not go away.

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