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House Balanced-Budget Amendment Approved : Congress: Bipartisan vote moves historic proposal to Senate. But controversial curb on tax hikes is omitted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Determined to make “government do what Americans do,” the House on Thursday took the historic step of passing a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution but rejected a controversial proposal that would have made it more difficult for Congress to raise taxes.

The 300-132 vote, which crossed party lines, was met with shouts and applause in the chamber when the ayes topped the 290 needed to approve the amendment.

“This was a bipartisan effort,” Gingrich said. “It took a long time.

“But changing America is hard work. It’s difficult. But a team came together and it worked for the country. This is Congress at its best.”

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The Speaker also challenged Congress to begin looking for ways to cut spending now and come up with a “seven-year track” that will make balancing the budget easier by the year 2002.

After the vote, he said, he telephoned Former First Lady Nancy Reagan to tell her the news, noting that President Reagan “was deeply concerned about the red ink” when he was in the White House during the 1980s.

The amendment, at the heart of the GOP’s “contract with America,” now goes to the Senate where it is expected to pass but not without lengthy debate. It would then go to the states where three-fourths of the legislatures must approve it before it takes effect.

The amendment requires that the federal government by the year 2002 not spend more than it takes in--an even line on the financial ledger that Congress has not passed since 1969. The only exception to a balanced budget would be in time of war or “imminent and serious military threat.” It would also prohibit Congress from increasing the limit on the federal debt without approval by three-fifths of both the House and Senate.

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After a generation of deficit spending and public demands for Congress to get its finances in order, House members were well aware of the solemnity of the occasion as they adopted House Joint Resolution No. 1.

“This moment is about the future of our children in this great nation,” said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) during the debate. “And we stand at this moment with a very frightening fact of our children’s lives. Each and every child is endowed with $18,000 of federal national debt.

“So today is our chance to rise to the occasion of the moment, to reach out, to put our disagreements aside and think about our children. Vote yes for a new constraint and a new beginning.”

His colleague, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), one of the freshman Republicans who came to the nation’s capital eager to reform Washington, also put it in human terms.

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“Americans balance their own budgets and demand the same of their own government,” she said. “Let’s make government do what Americans do.”

And said Rep. W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (D-La.): “Do we have a right to spend money we don’t have? No, because we cannot do this in a free society and keep it free.”

Among those voting against the measure, however, was Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), who warned that, if term limits--another of the GOP’s “contract with America” provisions--is enacted, responsibility would be passed to a new set of lawmakers to make the hard choices of cutting programs. This Congress, he said, “won’t have to dance to the music.”

“We all want to see a balanced budget, but the President would also like to see the details on how the House would propose to meet this new constitutional requirement,” White House spokesman Michael McCurry said in a statement.

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For the Republican leadership in the House, the long day of debate and a series of votes ended both bitter and sweet.

Earlier in the day, in a significant setback for Gingrich and his conservative allies, the House turned down a proposal that would require a “super-majority” of at least 60% in both houses of Congress to pass tax increases.

Although the provision was endorsed in an initial 253-173 floor vote, 290 votes were needed because it would have been part of a constitutional amendment.

Eight GOP members broke with their colleagues and voted against the proposal. They called it unwise to restrict future members of Congress, especially if new taxes are needed to meet rising spending costs.

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“You won’t find in the Congress a more fiscally conservative member than myself,” Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) said in an interview after voting against the tax proposal.

“The bottom line is that people believe that getting the deficit under control is the No. 1 priority, not cutting taxes. And we shouldn’t put into our Constitution artificial restraints that don’t get us there as quickly as we can.”

Nevertheless, the tax provision was key to the new conservative agenda. Most Republicans want to balance the federal ledger by cutting programs, not by raising taxes.

Rep. Randy Tate (R-Wash.), another member of the GOP freshman class, said that he and his classmates have a “collective commitment” to keep taxes down so that “Americans can keep more of what they earn.”

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“It is time to make the nasty addiction to tax harder,” he said, contending that Democrats in the past were too quick to raise taxes to cover higher spending costs.

“Congress has become a fat cat and it’s time to put this fat cat on the Ultra-Slim diet.”

But Democrats said that it was impractical to “blindly” tie the hands of future Congresses. They also said they opposed the provision because it did not include a clause protecting Social Security from future cuts.

The Democrats tried to add a provision to the legislation that would have made Social Security immune from cuts under a resolution that was passed, but Republicans defeated the effort.

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Like many Democrats, Rep. Gene Green of Texas said that he could not support the amendment without assurances that Social Security would not be cut to make the 2002 deadline.


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