The Senate’s defeat of the balanced-budget amendment - arguably the most popular part of the House Republicans’ Contract With America - could signal serious trouble for the rest of the GOP’s agenda.
Though the amendment is not clinically dead but merely on life-support until Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole brings it up again, its setback has emboldened dispirited Democrats to begin fighting harder against other items proposed by the congressional majority.
It has also served as a reminder of what scholars have long known about the Senate’s traditional role as the pallbearer for controversial legislation.
“The Senate is rightfully a cooling place,” said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., “a place for pause and reflection. Much of the Contract With America was in trouble anyway in the Senate. We didn’t sign on to any contract over here, certainly I didn’t. So I think there will be some difficulty for other parts of it.”
Chafee is particularly opposed to the tax cuts in the House GOP’s plan. “When we’re trying to cut the deficit and balance the budget, a $370 billion tax cut is just piling on, making it much more difficult.”
Other items likely to face formidable opposition in the Senate include: line-item veto power for the president, regulatory reforms that would restrict government powers, legal reforms that would limit lawsuits against corporations and cap damage awards, and congressional term limits.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has himself acknowledged that he expects only 60 percent or so of the contract to become law, noting both the possible resistance in the Senate and the probability of a presidential veto of some items. It takes a two-thirds majority in both houses to overturn a veto.
The hurdles that the contract must overcome in the Senate are both political and institutional.
Many of the contract’s provisions split the country - and Congress - sharply along partisan and philosophical lines.
Republicans, particularly in the House, are determined to cut deeply into social, environmental and urban programs while weakening the government’s regulatory powers that most directly affect business constituencies. And they have shown a remarkable discipline so far in pushing that agenda through the House, where a cohesive majority of even a few votes can almost always prevail.
Most Democrats still believe that government is a force for good and serves not only as a powerful economic arbiter in a complex society but also as a safety net for the politically impotent.
Institutionally, the Senate’s rule of unlimited debate vests dogged minorities with immense power to bring the place to a grinding halt - and occasionally even bury important legislation. It takes 60 votes to quash a filibuster, and Republicans have only 54 now.
Last fall, while Democrats were still in charge, Republicans staged simultaneous filibusters to stymie a wide range of Democratic initiatives. Some Democrats are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to return the favor on the Contract With America. (Opponents led by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the grandmaster of dilatory strategy, held up the balancedbudget amendment for a month before the final vote.)
Some GOP senators are counting on a public backlash to the defeat of the budget amendment as a precursor to bringing it up again - and as a motive force for the rest of the Republican package.
“The fundamental message of the November election was to reduce the growth of the government,” said freshman Sen. Spence Abraham, R-Mich. “If the Democrats impede that, I think they will find themselves in political peril.”
But Democrats, a bit cocky after their first major congressional victory, insisted that the longer the GOP contract hangs out there, the bigger the target it makes.