The Senate on Thursday fell just shy of the votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, but Republican leaders pledged it was only the first of many showdowns to come.
Angry GOP leaders blasted President Clinton for “abdicating his responsibility” and blamed Democrats for the measure’s defeat on a final 65-35 vote after three days of political wrangling and finger pointing.
The measure, passed by the House in January, needed 67 votes, two- thirds of the Senate, to pass. When the measure stalled at 66-34, one vote short, Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, changed his vote to ‘no” in a procedural move that will allow him to bring the amendment back for another vote at any time.
“I’m very disappointed today in the United States Senate … and particularly the Democrats who have made this a political game,” Dole said. “Any time the election heat is turned up enough that they begin to understand how important this is to the American people, we’ll bring it back up and there’ll be another vote.”
Dole noted six Democrats voted for an identical measure last year but voted against the constitutional amendment this time. Only one of the 53 Senate Republicans, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, voted against the amendment.
Hatfield, chairman of the Appropriation Committee, withstood lastminute appeals from Dole and Haley Barbour, the Republican Party chairman.
Everyone agrees the deficit must be reduced. The national debt is nearing $5 trillion, and the interest payments alone are as large as the defense budget. The two parties differ on how that should be accomplished.
President Clinton, who operated a low-key lobbying effort against the constitutional amendment, defended his Democratic allies.
“The balanced budget amendment has been defeated, because Republi cans could not provide enough Democratic senators with the simple guarantee that Social Security would be protected in any balanced budget amendment procedures,” Clinton said.
He pledged to work with Republicans to balance the budget and suggested they start with health care reform, because medical costs are a growing part of the federal budget.
Dole said Clinton had “abdicated his responsibility.” Asked if he would consider protecting Social Security funds in the constitutional amendment, Dole said, “If we had a real president down there, we might think about it.”
The Kansan is a leading contender for the Republican nomination to challenge Clinton in 1996.
Several Democrats maintained they would vote for the constitutional amendment if it contained protections preventing Congress from using the more than $600 billion over seven years in surplus money from the Social Security Trust Fund.
“I want to see a balanced budget amendment pass Congress. I simply want it to be the right amendment,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Republicans have a choice of exempting Social Security funds and passing the bill, or not exempting the trust fund and letting the bill fail.
“If they choose not to do that, there is no one who can be faulted but the Republicans for the defeat of the amendment this afternoon,” Daschle said. He bristled at GOP comments that Republicans would make it a campaign issue.
“Let ‘em try, let ‘em try,” Daschle said. “I think it’s outrageous that we would politicize the Constitution of the United States of America. Secondly, I think the Republicans have a lot of explaining to do to the millions of senior citizens out there who have paid into a trust fund.”
Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Wendell Ford of Kentucky, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Feinstein and Daschle all voted for a constitutional amendment last year without the Social Security protections.
An angry Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., said of the six Democrats who changed their votes: “I hope every damn one of them loses the next election. These guys proved they don’t want to balance the budget.”
Asked if his sentiment extended to Hatfield, Smith said, “yes, absolutely.”
The Social Security trust fund has been used to mask the size of the deficit. To stop counting Social Security funds against the deficit would require Congress to cut spending over seven years by $1.8 trillion instead of $1.2 trillion to balance federal accounts by 2002.
Some opponents, notably Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., maintained the idea of amending the constitution to require a balanced budget was wrong. Byrd almost single-handedly slowed the Senate action for 30 days, predicting passage would have “consequences which no one can predict.”
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said he would introduce legislation making it a federal law that Congress balance the federal budget by the year 2002. The measure would have less weight than a constitutional amendment but would require a simple majority to pass.
“We don’t have a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, but we’re committed to cutting government spending and reducing the deficit. We’re committed to trying to do what we can in law, even though we can’t get the 67 votes,” Gramm said.
Supporters of the amendment maintained it would eventually pass the Senate and be sent to the states for ratification. The measure must be approved by 38 states to become part of the Constitution.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: How they voted Here is how Pacific Northwest senators voted in the 65-35 roll call by which the Senate failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget by 2002. On this vote, a “yes” vote was a vote to pass the amendment, a “no” vote was a vote to reject the amendment. Voting “yes” were 14 Democrats and 51 Republicans. Voting “no” were 33 Democrats and 2 Republicans. Idaho - Craig (R) Yes; Kempthorne (R) Yes. Montana - Baucus (D) Yes; Burns (R) Yes. Oregon - Hatfield (R) No; Packwood (R) Yes. Washington - Gorton (R) Yes; Murray (D) No. Associated Press