Senate Democrats dealt a severe blow to the Republican legislative agenda Thursday, killing the heart of the GOP's campaign platform--a constitutional amendment that mandates a balanced budget in seven years. Conceding a significant loss of momentum, grim-faced Republicans immediately set out to exact political revenge, blaming President Clinton and targeting six Democrats who voted against the proposal even though they had backed a virtually identical measure only a year and a day earlier.
The Republicans also displayed a determination to press on with the rest of their program, but they acknowledged that several other key elements--most notably tort reform and another constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms--now face a tougher road.
For all the furor surrounding Thursday's vote, the outcome was not in doubt by the time the roll call commenced with senators sitting stiffly at their desks, rising one by one to utter "aye" or "no" as their names were called--a custom reserved for historic occasions.
All but one of the Senate's 53 Republicans--Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon--voted for the amendment, along with 14 of 47 Democrats. But that was still one vote shy of the two-thirds majority required for passage of any proposed constitutional amendment. The House had passed the measure by a vote of 300 to 132.
Despite the amendment's defeat, this Congress probably has not heard the last of the controversy. Immediately after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas switched his vote, making the final tally 65 to 35. The move put Dole on the prevailing side, a parliamentary maneuver that will enable him to call up the amendment for debate and another vote at any time. And he made it clear that he intends to do just that, perhaps shortly before the 1996 elections as a ploy to focus further heat on the amendment's Democratic opponents.
Had the Senate approved it, the measure would have gone to the states for ratification. It would have mandated a balanced federal budget either in seven years or two years after ratification by the required three-fourths (38) of state legislatures, whichever was later.
By all accounts, the measure could have garnered 70 votes or more in the Senate if the GOP had added language explicitly barring the use of the Social Security trust fund surplus to help reduce the federal budget deficit. But Republicans refused and lost the votes of a handful of key Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
The Social Security trust fund currently runs huge surpluses that help to offset the federal deficit. If the trust fund were taken out of the 1996 budget, the deficit would be $66 billion higher. Without Social Security in the equation, lawmakers would have to find at least another $558 billion to balance the budget over the next seven years--on top of the $1.2 trillion now estimated to be the total cost of achieving a balanced budget by the year 2002.
After the amendment's defeat, Clinton said a constitutional measure was not necessary to reduce the deficit and offered to work with Congress "to make further reductions in the deficit."
Eliminating the deficit was the overarching credo of the House GOP's "contract with America," and the balanced-budget amendment--along with a presidential line-item veto--enjoyed top billing in the 10-point campaign manifesto.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) indicated that the GOP will go after Democrats who opposed the amendment--especially those who have voted for such a measure in the past.
"Now, we do have a strategy to try to pick up seven Senate seats in 1996," which would give the GOP a filibuster-proof majority, he said. "I think that a number of Democrats today are going to make that strategy easier."
In 1994, the Democrat-controlled Senate fell short of approving a balanced-budget amendment by four votes, 63 to 37. The six senators who voted for the 1994 amendment but voted against it Thursday were Feinstein, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.
Referring to Democrats who now have voted both ways on a balanced-budget amendment, Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said the situation raises "a real character issue."
Republicans have made no secret of their intention to portray such Democrats as cynics. As Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) argued in an earlier interview: "It's one thing for the Democrats to vote for it when they think it's not going to pass. . . . But in reality, they never were for it."
Some GOP strategists suggested Thursday that Feinstein has placed herself in the same kind of politically vulnerable position as former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.), whose reelection defeat last year was blamed on the deciding vote she cast in favor of Clinton's budget in 1993.
With a full term to serve before she is up for reelection, Feinstein's position is not as precarious, but Republicans suggested that she would be a prime target of a GOP campaign aimed at pressuring some Democrats to vote with them the next time they bring up the amendment.
Feinstein, however, said the calls to her office had been "running 10 to one in favor of protecting Social Security."
She added: "I want to see a balanced-budget amendment pass Congress. I simply want it to be the right amendment . . . (one that) protects the Social Security system."
Other Democrats moved quickly to limit the political damage that their opposition to the amendment may have engendered.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who also argued for language in the amendment to protect Social Security, said he and other Democratic senators may offer an alternative balanced-budget amendment in the near future.
Another proposal talked up by the Democrats was to direct the Senate Budget Committee to formulate a seven-year plan for balancing the budget that could then be enacted into law.
What Thursday's vote showed, said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), was "how sloppy the (GOP) thinking was and how this whole zip trip of moving the contract forward is filled not only with folly, but with danger."
But Republicans wasted no time launching their offensive.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the amendment's floor manager, said it was "despicable" of Democrats to "bring Social Security into the debate to frighten our senior citizens."
In remarks intended to preempt such attacks, Daschle gave a floor speech just before the voting began, saying that "no one should be misled. . . . The vast majority of Democrats support a balanced-budget amendment . . . (but they were) left with no choice but to vote against this version."
Dole, in his closing remarks, urged the amendment's passage on grounds that the Senate should not deprive "the people," through their elected state legislatures, a chance to decide the question.
"Return power to the people; return power to the states. That's what this debate is all about," Dole said. "The answer is democracy. Democracy. The answer is to trust the people."
Even as Dole and Gingrich struck a combative tone, many other Senate Republicans conceded that the amendment's defeat had sapped some of the momentum from their legislative juggernaut, which has produced one of the most prolific bursts of congressional activity in recent memory.
"I won't dispute that," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.), a leader of the drive to approve the amendment. "What we have to do is rebuild. And we can rebuild. And we will move quickly again."
Mack added: "I'm extremely disappointed. But we'll respond by trying to do more, and redouble efforts."
Mack, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, also said the amendment's defeat now "makes it much more difficult" to attain a balanced budget.
Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), the House Budget Committee chairman, agreed: "It makes the job harder, but it doesn't make it impossible."
Gingrich also vowed to continue working toward a balanced budget. " . . . As long as I'm Speaker, we're going to spend every day working on decisions that get us to a balanced budget by 2002, period," he said.
Kasich called it "an absolute imperative" to eliminate the deficit. "The question is: 'Can we still get to a balanced budget by 2002?' We have the will to do it in the House, I believe."
Vote on Balanced-Budget Measure
WASHINGTON--Here is how members of the Senate voted, 65 to 35, to defeat the constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget:
Republicans for--Shelby (Ala.), Murkowski (Alaska), Stevens (Alaska), Kyl (Ariz.), McCain (Ariz.), Brown (Colo.), Roth (Del.), Mack (Fla.), Coverdell (Ga.), Craig (Ida.), Kempthorne (Ida.), Coats (Ind.), Lugar (Ind.), Grassley (Iowa), Kassebaum (Kan.), McConnell (Ky.), Cohen (Me.), Snowe (Me.), Abraham (Mich.), Grams (Minn.), Cochran (Miss.), Lott (Miss.), Ashcroft (Mo.), Bond (Mo.), Burns (Mont.), Gregg (N.H.), Smith (N.H.), Domenici (N.M.), D'Amato (N.Y.), Faircloth (N.C.), Helms (N.C.), DeWine (Ohio), Inhofe (Okla.), Nickles (Okla.), Packwood (Ore.), Santorum (Pa.), Specter (Pa.), Chafee (R.I.), Thurmond (S.C.), Pressler (S.D.), Frist (Tenn.), Thompson (Tenn.), Gramm (Tex.), Hutchison (Tex.), Bennett (Utah), Hatch (Utah), Jeffords (Vt.), Warner (Va.), Gorton (Wash.), Simpson (Wyo.), Thomas (Wyo.)
Democrats for--Heflin (Ala.), Campbell (Colo.), Biden (Del.), Graham (Fla.), Nunn (Ga.), Moseley-Braun (Ill.), Simon (Ill.), Harkin (Iowa), Breaux (La.), Baucus (Mont.), Exon (Neb.), Bryan (Nev.), Robb (Va.), Kohl (Wis.)
Democrats against--Bumpers (Ark.), Pryor (Ark.), Boxer (Calif.), Feinstein (Calif.), Dodd (Conn.), Lieberman (Conn.), Akaka (Hawaii), Inouye (Hawaii), Ford (Ky.), Johnston (La.), Mikulski (Md.), Sarbanes (Md.), Kennedy (Mass.), Kerry (Mass.), Levin (Mich.), Wellstone (Minn.), Kerrey (Neb.), Reid (Nev.), Bradley (N.J.), Lautenberg (N.J.), Bingaman (N.M.), Moynihan (N.Y.), Conrad (N.D.), Dorgan (N.D.), Glenn (Ohio), Pell (R.I.), Hollings (S.C.), Daschle (S.D.), Leahy (Vt.), Murray (Wash.), Byrd (W.Va.), Rockefeller (W.Va.), Feingold (Wis.)
Republicans against--Dole (Kan.), Hatfield (Ore.)