Senate Republicans reopened debate Wednesday on a proposed constitutional amendment to compel a balanced federal budget, introducing the legislation with a flourish of bipartisan support that masks the uphill struggle the proposal now faces.
“It’s time to do something about this terrible problem,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the floor leader for the legislation, said at a Capitol Hill news conference before the debate began.
Hatch was joined by other supporters of the amendment, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and several Democratic congressmen and senators, who pledged to work for its passage in the 105th Congress. Two years ago, the amendment was approved by the House but fell one vote short of passage in the Senate.
“I am delighted with the broad, bipartisan support for a balanced budget,” Gingrich said. “This is a coalition that’s going to win. It’s going to win because it brings together people from all backgrounds.”
But Senate supporters admitted that they are still several votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. In the House, supporters said, they are about 10 votes shy of the mark.
Ever since losing the close vote in 1995, proponents have vowed to resubmit the legislation and they were anxious to make the Senate bill--dubbed the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment--their first item of business in the 105th Congress.
Their eagerness was heightened by the November elections, which sent two additional Republicans to the Senate, giving the GOP 55 seats.
Senate GOP leaders said that, if they retain the support of every Democrat who voted for it in 1995 and can win the backing of all four freshman Democrats, they will have the 68 votes required for passage.
But getting and keeping those votes may prove to be as insurmountable a task as in the past because some lawmakers fear the amendment’s potential impact on Social Security.
Indeed, on Wednesday Republican leaders shut down the House Judiciary Committee before its members could vote on a proposal by Democratic Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Barney Frank of Massachusetts to exempt Social Security from deficit calculations. Fearing that the Democrats would prevail, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) adjourned the committee, effectively postponing any votes to alter the legislation.
House Republican leaders have been meeting privately with some concerned GOP legislators in an effort to find a way to separate Social Security from the balanced-budget amendment without changing the bill itself. Their goal is to ensure Republican unity on the issue.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder of Indiana, a leader of the House Republicans who want some budget protections for Social Security, said after a meeting with GOP leaders on the subject: “I think we’ll see some sort of accommodation because I don’t believe they have the votes now. They are in trouble and they know it.”
But Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), an ardent supporter of the amendment, put the intraparty talks in a more positive light. “We’re right at the edge of climbing to the top of Mount Everest,” he said during the news conference. “When people get put to the test, they’ll take that extra suck of their oxygen tank and they’ll climb as hard as they can to the top of that mountain.”
The legislation, which has been introduced by Republicans in both congressional chambers, would compel the federal government to balance its budget within seven years of ratification, unless three-fifths of the members of both houses grant an exception.
While the provision is popular with many American voters and a majority of federal lawmakers, the Clinton administration and some Democrats have said that they oppose the amendment because it may restrict the federal government from making budgetary adjustments. It also may force limits on taxpayer benefits to avoid violating the Constitution.
President Clinton singled out the balanced-budget amendment in his State of the Union address on Tuesday as the only GOP proposal that he flatly opposes.
“I believe it is unnecessary and unwise to adopt a balanced-budget amendment that could cripple our country in time of crisis later on and force unwanted results, such as judges halting Social Security checks or increasing taxes,” Clinton said. “We don’t need a constitutional amendment.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leading opponent of the proposed amendment, picked up the president’s reasoning during floor debate Wednesday, arguing that passage of the amendment “would undo all those protections and put Social Security on the chopping block.”
Kennedy admitted that the proposal “does have superficial appeal” among some Democrats and most Republicans but argued that it lacks wide acceptance among average Americans.
“Our Republican friends should not be lulled into a false sense of public support for this phony amendment,” he said. “When families across America realize its flaws, this amendment will flunk the kitchen-table test.”
But before Kennedy takes his argument beyond Capitol Hill, he may have to have a conversation around his own kitchen table. Kennedy’s nephew, Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), was among the Democrats attending the GOP-led news conference, offering a self-defense of how “a liberal Democrat can possibly support a balanced-budget amendment.”
“If you look at what has happened as the result of having an unbalanced budget, every single program that I have fought for in 10 years in the Congress has been cut,” the younger Kennedy said in the most spirited oration of the news conference. “We don’t stand up for the poor by standing up for an unbalanced budget.”
Hatch, who moderated the news conference, beamed when Kennedy stopped talking. “Oh! If only we could get his uncle to say that,” Hatch said.