It has become, in the words of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), "our first 'contract with America' moment of truth."
Despite their initial appearance of unity, House Republicans have hit an unexpectedly stubborn intraparty impasse over what is supposed to be the centerpiece of their contract with America, a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget.
The dispute that is roiling the GOP is not over whether to stop red-ink spending but how. House Republicans would like to complete the so-called Reagan Revolution by grafting onto the balanced-budget amendment a provision that would make it virtually impossible to bring the government's books into balance by raising taxes.
But many House Republicans are wary. They argue that tax hikes should remain a viable, if distasteful, option for reining in the deficit. And many lawmakers object that the U.S. Constitution should not be cluttered with rules dictating how Congress should pass laws in special cases. Most Democrats share these concerns.
In a letter circulated to Republican colleagues last week, Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) endorsed a version of the balanced-budget measure that "would make it as difficult as possible to raise taxes to balance the budget." But they also acknowledged that "we are some ways off" from getting the 290 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment including a requirement that a 60% majority would be needed to pass a tax increase.
At issue is whether to attach the "Barton amendment," named for Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), to the balanced-budget measure that is sent to the House floor for a vote. Barton's version of the proposal would require the federal government to balance its budgets by the year 2002. It also would effectively dictate that Congress use spending cuts, not tax hikes, to balance its books because of the requirement for a three-fifths majority in both chambers of Congress to pass tax increases, from income and excise taxes to royalties.
That requirement would make tax increases difficult to pass. But its defenders contend that without the constitutional requirement, Congress would shrink from making deep budget cuts to balance the budget and instead would try to eliminate the deficit by raising taxes.
"We all know that raising taxes is the easy way out for Congress but places the burden on our hard-working American taxpayers," Gingrich, Armey and DeLay wrote to colleagues last week.
On Sunday, Armey told ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" that it would be "a heavy-lifting job" to get the measure through the House with the provision making tax hikes harder to pass.
In fact, the Barton amendment is given little or no chance of passage in the Senate, where a large bloc of moderate Republicans and most Democrats oppose it on constitutional grounds. That powerful Republican opposition in the Senate means that there is little chance the provision would be adopted in a final conference bill.
As a result, the controversy is largely a symbolic one, in which House Republicans are hoping to seize some political advantage over Democrats and showcase their staunch opposition to tax increases.
So far, wrangling over the so-called "super-majority" provision has delayed consideration of the balanced-budget amendment in the House by at least a week. The House Rules Committee is to begin discussing the terms under which it will bring the balanced-budget amendment to the House floor by the end of this week.
If the 60% provision is made part of the legislation, Republicans could see support among their own troops fracture. And even if the House leadership were to hold all 230 GOP votes, they still would need 60 House Democrats to pass the bill. Many Democrats are uneasy about the 60% provision.
To many Republican lawmakers, and especially to the pivotal freshman class, the Barton amendment is a promise made to voters in the contract and it should not be negotiable.
"There are a lot of us who feel we should at least go on record to show that at least we wanted to make it difficult to raise taxes," said Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-Utah), a freshman who serves on the powerful Rules Committee and has been involved in the preliminary negotiations. "A lot of us campaigned on it. We said: 'This is what I'm going to fight for.' You can't control a lot of other members but you can try to persuade them."
The debate over the provision is the second line of attack that congressional Democrats have opened against the balanced-budget amendment, in spite of the fact that many conservative and moderate Democrats in both chambers favor a constitutional amendment that doesn't include the 60% requirement for tax increases. Previously, Democrats had sought to score tactical points with voters by demanding that Republicans explicitly identify how they would make the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that a balanced-budget amendment would require.
The Democrats' attack against the three-fifths majority rule, Waldholtz said, is another tactical ploy. Opponents of the rule may succeed in stripping that controversial provision out of the balanced-budget measure, she said. But she said that they can do little to thwart the balanced-budget measure itself.
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