A dead horse is prodded off to a predestined guillotine

June 10, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- If departing Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole wanted to illustrate why it was a good idea politically for him to resign the job and the Senate itself, he picked the right vehicle in presiding over the doomed second Republican attempt to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

For all the hope expressed by fellow Republicans that Mr. Dole's decision would bring forth a newly invigorated, hard-hitting presidential nominee, he was the picture of uninspiring resignation to defeat as he concluded the debate that preceded the 64-35 vote, two votes short of the two thirds required to send such an amendment to the states.

''We will have this vote and we will lose,'' he said in a monotone, ''but we will have made a statement.''

That statement, obviously, was that the Republicans at least had tried again to approve a constitutional amendment that polls indicate is widely favored by the voters.

But the additional statement that may well have been conveyed was that for all of Senator Dole's declaration that he is a ''doer, not a talker,'' he couldn't deliver in the arena in which he is supposed to excel.

A few minutes later, winding up, Mr. Dole lapsed into the procedural Senate-speak for which he is famous. He explained that on the first vote on the issue he had voted for the amendment, then changed his vote to ''no'' so that, under parliamentary rules, he would be eligible to bring it up again later.

Members of the Senate listening were well aware of this procedural history, but Mr. Dole recited it anyway, perhaps for the relatively small audience of C-SPAN political junkies around the country watching the morning telecast while most of America was at work. The senator insisted that ''it's not a partisan issue,'' noting that a Democrat also leaving the Senate soon, Paul Simon of Illinois, backs the balanced-budget amendment. But it had to be clear to everyone in the chamber that partisanship was at the core of dragging this dead horse out of the barn again for another vote, predestined to fail. Mr. Dole admitted it in his next breath, observing that ''we're not going to change any votes. This is an election year.''

A different White House

He went on to say that he hoped that if the amendment didn't pass this time, ''maybe, next year, the White House will not lobby against it. Maybe there'll be someone who'll lobby for it'' -- meaning himself if he can somehow beat President Clinton in November and keep the Senate in Republican hands.

Just why Mr. Dole decided to go out of the Senate with a whimper instead of a bang is baffling. Before the balanced-budget amendment vote, he also took a predictable licking on another dead horse, the Republican effort to revive Ronald Reagan's dream of a missile-defense system popularly known as ''Star Wars,'' and with about as much reality to it as the movie.

It is true that the Senate Democrats' withholding the two-thirds vote needed to approve the balanced-budget amendment will enable nominee Dole to continue to charge through the 1996 campaign that, as he said in his Senate floor speech, the losers will be America's children, saddled with more and more federal debt. And he will be able to keep charging that failure to balance the budget constitutes a ''stealth tax'' on voters by virtue of the interest they have to pay on the debt.

But this is hardly likely to be the issue which will divide voters between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole this fall. As long as the president continues to say that he's ready and willing to sit down with Senator Dole and the Republican congressional leaders and work out a deal to balance the budget -- however disingenuous that statement may be -- Mr. Dole is going to have a hard time getting much credit for leading the balanced-budget amendment to the Senate guillotine for a second time.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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