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Senate Balancing Budget Concerns Vote To Spare Social Security Called A ‘Fig Leaf’ By Balanced Budget Critics

Prospects for enactment of a balanced budget constitutional amendment improved Friday after the Senate voted 87 to 10 in favor of a resolution to prohibit Congress from balancing the budget at the expense of the Social Security program.

Sen. Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., and other Democratic critics dismissed the resolution as a “fig leaf” and “sham” that would have no binding effect on the actions of future congresses. They insist that nothing short of a change in the constitutional amendment to include an exemption for Social Security from future cuts would be sufficient to attract their support.

“The only way to prevent the raping of Social Security is to vote” to alter the constitutional amendment, Reid said. “Today’s vote is posturing and posturing only.”

However, shortly after the vote, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced that he would support the balanced budget amendment despite his reservations about the Social Security safeguards and other issues. “There are serious, thoughtful arguments against this amendment - arguments on constitutional principle, and arguments based on its practical effects,” he said in a floor speech. “But I have seen us evade our responsibility (to eliminate the deficit) too many times.”

Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Paul Simon, D-Ill., chief proponents of the balanced budget amendment, said that with Baucus on board, there were 66 senators in favor of the amendment, or one shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to approve the constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification. “I feel things are coming my way,” Simon told reporters.

Craig and Simon claim to have the support of 52 of the 53 Republicans and 14 of 47 Democrats. However, some Democratic insiders caution that some of the Democratic support for the amendment is “soft” and could be influenced by the outcome of next week’s fight over Reid’s attempt to revise the constitutional amendment to include the Social Security safeguards.

The biggest obstacle for amendment proponents in the Senate is overcoming fears that the politically sacrosanct Social Security system might be altered to help eliminate the deficit. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, has warned that any effort to revise the balanced budget amendment to protect Social Security would create a huge loophole, since future congresses could craft legislation to define practically any social spending program as “social security.”

“Everyone knows that if we amend the balanced budget amendment to exclude Social Security … that the balanced budget amendment would not be worth the paper it’s written on,” Hatch said Friday.

Meanwhile, 66 House Democrats, including conservative Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) and liberal Joseph P. Kennedy II (Mass.), wrote to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., urging him to support the amendment. Daschle, who is uncommitted, led an unsuccessful effort to try to force Republicans to show in advance how they intend to eliminate the deficit.