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House Vote Kills Term-Limits Amendment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first politically significant vote of the new session of Congress, the House on Wednesday killed a proposed constitutional amendment to set term limits for federal legislators.

Although a majority of the lawmakers voted for the measure, the 217-211 count fell 69 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass an amendment.

“To adopt term limits is to play Russian roulette with the future,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), whose panel sent the proposal to the floor. If the Constitution is changed and legislators are limited to only 12 years of service, “developing effective leaders would be a roll of the dice--a revolving-door leadership with no continuity, no stability and no historical memory,” Hyde added.

A provision offered by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) would have restricted House members to six two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. The amendment would not have been retroactive to affect time already served by sitting legislators.

The House vote effectively ends the matter for this session, avoiding the need for debate or votes in the Senate. Similarly, a 1995 drive for a term-limits amendment failed to reach the Senate when House supporters fell 61 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

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Though defeat this time around was never in doubt, some supporters said that they felt compelled to heed the wishes of their state legislatures by supporting the issue in an on-the-record tally.

“It is important that we have this vote because it is the will of the American people to have term limits,” said Rep. John E. Ensign (R-Nev.), who was elected to Congress in 1994 with a wave of GOP reformers on the coattails of the GOP campaign manifesto, the so-called contract with America. Passage of a term-limits amendment was a key provision of the contract.

During debate preceding the vote that rejected his amendment to the term-limits measure, Ensign argued in favor of term limits as a means to break “the power of incumbency.”

“A lot of good people are not coming into this body because of the power of incumbency,” he said.

Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), who is serving his third term, agreed that term limits would foster good government and fresh leaders. “It will give us representatives who put serving the interests of the people and advancing the good of the nation ahead of perpetuating their own legislative careers,” he said.

But Democrats seemed to enjoy watching Republicans fight among themselves over the issue, reveling at the discomfort it was apparently causing some GOP members.

“The exercise we are going through demonstrates how trivial this issue really is,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.).

“If someone truly believes it is morally wrong to serve here more than six or 12 years, then they should exercise the courage of their convictions and not serve one day longer,” said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas).

Term limits was defeated because GOP supporters failed to rally behind a single measure. Instead, term-limits proponents offered 11 amendments that diluted any single effort. None came close to securing the two-thirds majority.

“Congress is having a temper tantrum over this entire issue,” said Jonathan Ferry, a spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, a Washington-based, grass-roots advocacy group.

Although the term-limits issue is popular with voters across the nation, federal lawmakers seem reluctant to listen and act accordingly, Ferry said, making no effort to hide his disgust over the daylong debate. “They have set up a messy and convoluted rule . . . allowing 11 different votes on the issue that obscures the constitutional amendment for term limits and diverts attention away from the fact that they have no intention of passing term limits,” he added.

U.S. Term Limits had successfully persuaded nine states to vote on ballot initiatives to force their representatives to vote for term limits or risk a “scarlet letter"--a voter notification reading “Disregarded Voters’ Instructions on Term Limits"--attached to their name on the next ballot. An effort to put a “scarlet letter” initiative concerning term limits on the 1998 California ballot is pending, Ferry said.

Lawmakers droned on into the evening, with near-identical debates and votes on a series of similar changes to the term-limits amendment. Each proposal was designed to give lawmakers political cover with voters who had ordered them by referendum to support term limits.

“It’s really no surprise they’re playing the games they’re playing today,” said Ferry, who added that his group didn’t bother to witness the debate or attempt to lobby lawmakers as they voted. “Those [lobbying] efforts would be futile because those guys aren’t serious. We’re working with activists in the states a lot more than trying to work within the halls of Congress.”


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