The House on Thursday narrowly defeated a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have required a balanced federal budget, dealing a sharp rebuff to President Bush and handing a surprising victory to Democratic congressional leaders.
Proponents of the amendment fell nine votes short of the required two-thirds majority in a 280-153 roll call vote that climaxed two days of debate over the soaring budget deficit and whether constitutional change was the way to control it.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) immediately announced that he would not bring up the measure in the Senate this year because of its defeat in the House. Proposed constitutional amendments must be passed by both houses of Congress, then sent to the states for ratification.
In view of widespread public anger over government gridlock, House advocates of the measure seemed to have the momentum in a seesaw battle that centered on two dozen undecided lawmakers.
"Unless we have a change, we have a problem," argued Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), chief sponsor of the plan that would have required the President to submit a budget each year in which revenues and expenditures were in balance. It would have permitted deficit spending if 60% majorities in the House and Senate approved.
"The Constitution will not balance the budget . . . or provide the courage we need," argued Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) in a floor speech that wound up his campaign against the amendment.
Opponents charged that the proposal was an election-year gimmick that would give away Congress' traditional power of the purse, undermine the separation-of-powers doctrine and threaten drastic cuts in many federal spending programs, including Social Security.
Advocates had hoped to translate public frustration with the nation's record $400-billion budget deficit into a House victory this year for the amendment, a longtime goal of conservatives that has picked up support from some liberals as well.
But they were unable to come up with the votes needed for passage, despite an intensive lobbying campaign by Bush, including telephone calls from Panama, where he was traveling Thursday, and nearly unanimous Republican support.
Comments by House members indicated that they felt more heat from a counter-campaign by senior citizens' groups who feared that passage of the amendment would jeopardize Social Security benefits or Medicare protection.
Ross Perot, the undeclared presidential contender, came out against the amendment in a television interview Thursday morning on the grounds that it is not necessary to revise the Constitution to deal with the deficit. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, previously had said that he opposes the measure on grounds that it would be harmful to the economy.
Despite the outcome, leaders on both sides said that they would redouble their efforts to curtail red-ink spending, and a new budget-control bill appears likely to be approved by the House within the next few weeks.
Perot's focus on the fast-rising deficit has put heavy pressure on the President and Congress to respond in some way in a volatile political year. And the vote on the amendment took on added significance with elections only five months away.
Aided by an unusual alliance that included organized labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Foley and his top lieutenants threw their prestige into the fight and emerged with a narrow victory.
In the final showdown on the main proposal sponsored by Stenholm, a solid majority of 116 Democrats and 164 Republicans voted for it, while 150 Democrats, 2 Republicans and one independent joined to prevent the measure from getting a two-thirds majority.
Earlier, the House decisively rejected three other proposals to amend the Constitution in hopes of eliminating deficit spending in the closing years of this century. None of those three even received a simple majority of votes.
One proposal, advanced by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), was rejected by an overwhelming 327-103 vote. Another amendment to limit federal spending to 19% of gross domestic product was defeated by a vote of 258 to 170, and a proposed constitutional provision to require a three-fifths vote of the House and Senate to raise taxes also was defeated by a 227-200 vote.
The last time that both houses of Congress approved a constitutional amendment that was ratified by the states was in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18.
During the debate, opponents argued that it is not necessary to tamper with the nation's fundamental law to make the difficult decisions necessary to reduce spending or raise revenues to balance the budget.
"This is nothing more than the constitutional equivalent of hanging garlic in the window to ward off vampires," argued Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "It just makes us feel good."
But Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) countered that an amendment was the only recourse left after years of futile attempts to eliminate or even trim the deficit.
"We have no choice any more," Dorgan said. "We are stealing from the future of our children. I am going to vote for it because it might work."
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), however, made a telling argument against the Stenholm plan, noting that it would not take effect for six years even if were approved by Congress and ratified by the states.
"If we're going to discipline ourselves, we have to do it now," Murtha said. "If we let it go another six years, I am convinced we'll have a national calamity."
Despite the defeat, Stenholm indicated that he was ready to work with Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), chairman of the House Budget Committee who led a floor fight against the amendment, to put together a bipartisan coalition that would enact legislation to enforce spending austerity on Congress without changing the Constitution.
Balanced-Budget Amendment Vote
Here is how members of the California delegation voted on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget:
Democrats for--Anderson, Condit, Dooley.
Republicans for--Campbell, Cox, Cunningham, Dannemeyer, Doolittle, Dornan, Dreier, Gallegly, Herger, Hunter, Lagomarsino, Lewis, Lowery, McCandless, Moorhead, Packard, Riggs, Rohrabacher, Thomas.
Democrats against--Beilenson, Berman, Boxer, Brown, Dellums, Dixon, Dymally, Edwards, Fazio, Lantos, Lehman, Levine, Martinez, Matsui, Miller, Mineta, Panetta, Pelosi, Roybal, Stark, Torres, Waters, Waxman.