The Republican-dominated Senate on Tuesday rejected two Democratic attempts to carve out exemptions to the balanced-budget amendment, leaving the Social Security Trust Fund as a possible target that Congress could use to help cut the deficit.
By a 57-41 vote, the Senate defeated a proposal by Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Harry Reid of Nevada that would have barred using the Social Security Trust Fund to help balance the budget.
The Senate also defeated a move led by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to exempt federal disaster aid from requirements of the toughly worded constitutional amendment.
Defeat of the two Democratic proposals means that an extremely close vote on the balanced-budget amendment is likely, with perhaps a single vote as the margin of victory, according to senators on both sides of the debate. The Senate may vote on it next week. A two-thirds majority is needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
Both Feinstein and Boxer said they will vote against the amendment, which the House approved last month on a 300-132 vote after overwhelmingly defeating an attempt to exempt Social Security.
“I cannot support a balanced-budget amendment that allows the federal government to break its sacred compact with working Americans and abandon victims of natural disasters in their time of need,” Boxer said. Her proposal was defeated, 70 to 28.
“For states like California, that endure earthquakes, floods, fires and mudslides, a balanced-budget amendment without this critical exemption would be catastrophic,” she added. “There’s much less sympathy now for disaster victims. My colleagues are suffering from disaster burnout,” Boxer said. “And California is at great risk here.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the balanced-budget amendment’s floor manager, has resisted attempts to carve out exemptions, arguing that it would set an unwise precedent.
“Are we not shortchanging the children if we just worry about the seniors?” Hatch asked, adding that seniors have enormous political power and thus should be required to compete for funds like any other interest group.
But Reid disagreed, predicting that the absence of a Social Security protection clause would “invite wholesale raiding of the Social Security Trust Fund and allow lawmakers to avoid tough spending cuts.”
If approved by the Senate and ratified by at least 38 state legislatures, the amendment would require a balanced budget either in seven years or two years after ratification by the states, whichever is later. The President’s approval is not required.
The Senate recently voted down another Democratic amendment, offered by Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, which would have forced a detailed accounting of how Congress would seek to balance the budget.
Aboard Air Force One as he accompanied President Clinton to California, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said that the Senate’s failure to protect Social Security makes it “more incumbent on (amendment backers) than ever . . . to tell the American people exactly what steps need to be taken if we are, in fact, going to balance the budget.”
The requirements of the proposed amendment could be waived only during wartime or when national security is threatened. In addition, Congress would be permitted to approve specific instances of deficit spending--such as by raising the debt ceiling--if three-fifths of the total membership in each House voted to do so.
Boxer called the amendment an “unreasonable, inflexible and even dangerous proposal.”
Also on Tuesday, first-year House Republicans, egged on by their elders, targeted for elimination four federal agencies, saying that any vital functions that the Cabinet-level departments are performing can be put in private or local hands or consolidated. Their targets: the departments of Commerce, Energy, Education and Housing and Urban Development.
The first-year Republicans, at a press briefing with several influential committee chairmen as well as a gaggle of second-term lawmakers, announced the formation of task forces charged with plotting the demise of each agency.
Their efforts were heartily endorsed by two former Cabinet officers: Jack Kemp of Housing and Urban Development and Robert A. Mosbacher of Commerce.
“We need systemic change,” said Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee. “And it can’t be done by nibbling at the edges.”
The task force leaders conceded, however, that they face an uphill battle against deeply entrenched bureaucracies with multibillion-dollar budgets and far-flung constituencies.
“I can’t tell you that every one of these task forces is going to be successful,” said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The task forces are expected to detail their recommendations and produce draft legislation by spring, according to Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of the freshman leaders. He said that the departments have outlived their usefulness and “on the whole . . . have actually stymied innovations.”
Among HUD functions that should be retained, Kemp said, is the enforcement of fair housing laws. He suggested that the Justice Department could easily inherit that task.
Mosbacher called Commerce “a prime example of how a federal bureaucracy has grown too big and too expensive,” but said its essential role as protector of U.S. interests in global trade can be shifted to the office of the U.S. trade representative.
The Clinton Administration also has considered each of the four targeted agencies for elimination but has stopped short of proposing actually doing it.