The Senate on Thursday again sank a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget - but Bob Dole was happy to settle for a campaign issue.
“It’s not whether you win or lose but whether you’ve made the statement,” he said.
The outgoing Senate majority leader and presumed Republican presidential nominee admitted defeat even before his colleagues voted 64-35 in favor of the proposal. The margin was two votes short of the twothirds support required for an amendment to the Constitution.
But the Kansan said debate on the issue had at least provided the American people with a sense of the commitment that Republicans have made to balancing the budget, while leaving the impression that President Clinton and most Democrats would rather put off the hard decisions.
“I think passing this amendment’s the single most important thing we can do to ensure the nation’s economic security and to protect the American dream for our children,” Dole said.
The last time the Senate took up the issue, it fell only one vote short of passage. The difference Thursday was that Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., changed his vote to “no,” denouncing Dole’s renewed effort as a “crass election-year public-relations stunt.”
All Republicans except Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., voted “yes.”
During his comments on the Senate floor, Dole repeatedly contrasted his stance on a balanced budget repeatedly contrasted his stance on a balanced budget with Clinton’s. He remarked several times that the Republican majority in Congress passed a balanced budget last year “for the first time in a generation,” only to have it vetoed because Clinton refused to go along with GOP trims in the growth of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
But Democrats turned the tables on Dole, using the debate to blast away at his proposed increases in defense spending and reports that he is considering an across-the-board tax cut proposal that would cost nearly $600 billion. They accused Dole of floating the same old “trickle-down” economic theories that dominated Ronald Reagan’s years in the White House and drove the country into debt.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., called the Reagan tax cuts and military spending increases “a mistake” of monumental proportions for which Republicans and Democrats, including himself, should bear responsibility. But he called it “sheer folly” for Dole to propose a balanced budget amendment at the same time he talks about tax cuts and spending increases dedicated to deploying a national missile defense system.
“This amendment is sham. It’s a charade, and it will not balance the budget one whit,” Byrd said, adding that the talk of tax cuts “represents nothing more than political pandering to win votes at the expense of deficit reduction.”
“We must not repeat the mistake of the 1980s. … If we really don’t want to foist this (debt) burden on our children, then we have to put aside this folly regarding tax cuts at this time,” the senator continued, labeling the Dole amendment “political cover for a tax giveaway.”
Dole retires Tuesday
Dole will retire officially from the Senate on Tuesday to pursue the presidency full time. He had hoped to use his last week as majority leader to push through the balanced budget amendment as well as a bill that would have authorized the development and deployment of a sea- and land-based missile defense system aided by satellite technology.
But Democratic Senate leaders were successful in blocking the measures, arguing they were little more than campaign “gimmicks” designed to put Clinton on the defensive.
After the vote, Dole vowed to continue his focus on both issues through the November elections.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry labeled Dole’s amendment “a meaningless gesture” and said Clinton’s own economic policies have already helped cut the deficit by half, to a projected $130 billion this year.
Republicans were hard-pressed Thursday to dispute that point. But they continued to insist that Clinton’s spending priorities, especially in the area of entitlement programs, would eventually drive the deficit back up.
Clinton acknowledged Thursday there is still wide disagreement over major spending priorities. But he stressed that both his plan and the Republican plan would balance the budget by 2002, despite their spending differences.
“Both of them have savings in common to do it,” Clinton told reporters.
He said Congress should “pass the savings we have in common” and then let voters decide in November who has the best plans for dealing with Medicare and Medicaid as well as other hot political issues blocking a balanced budget deal.
On another legislative front, Dole faced a setback with the apparent demise of his once-popular proposal to repeal the 4.3 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.
Gas tax repeal evaporates
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle confirmed Thursday that the gas-tax repeal is unlikely to come up in the Senate before Dole leaves office Tuesday afternoon to begin his full-time presidential campaign.
And even if the repeal did come to a vote, Daschle said, “it may not get the 51 votes.”
Dole had viewed his proposal as a gambit that would energize his lackluster campaign - and serve as a prelude to an across-the-board income tax cut plan.
Abetted by voter apathy, declining fuel prices and Democratic skepticism, the repeal has all but vanished from the Senate agenda.
Said Daschle: “I think the longer this thing goes on, the less real interest there is, especially if Senator Dole is no longer here and it doesn’t appear to be as much a presidential campaign issue.”