Newly re-elected Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was a whirlwind of activity this week, bouncing between meetings with GOP congressional leaders as they prepare for the 105th Congress in January.
But if Craig has his way, there will be something moving even faster on Capitol Hill next year: the balanced budget amendment.
Craig has been a longtime proponent of a constitutional requirement for the federal government to balance its books. Now, the amendment appears to be within reach.
Last year’s bill fell just short of the required two-thirds majority in the Senate, but Republicans gained two seats there in last week’s election.
Congressional sources estimate there now are 68 supporters of the measure in the Senate - one more than the required two-thirds.
Craig told The Spokesman-Review in an interview Wednesday that the amendment joins reform of the Endangered Species Act, Medicare and campaign financing at the top of his priority list for the next Congress.
“I would think that we can put back on the floor the same bill that was voted on last year,” Craig said, predicting that a vote on the balanced budget amendment could come as early as May.
Constitutional amendments require approval by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Tuesday, President Clinton considerably softened his previous opposition to the amendment. He announced cautious support for an amendment so long as it had an “escape hatch” to allow deficit spending in case of a recession.
“If the escape hatch is good, then we’ll manage it the best way we can,” Clinton told reporters.
Craig said the current draft of the amendment provides that escape hatch, allowing recessionary spending if approved by three-fifths of Congress.
“Any amendment needs to be constitutionally strong,” Craig said. “It should always require a supermajority vote. That’s the way the Founders set it up - you need an extraordinary situation to abridge the Constitution.”
Craig estimated that if Congress approves the amendment, state ratification would take between one to one-and-a-half years. He said the ensuing state debates would be educational not only to the public, but to Congress.
“A debate will create a higher awareness of how federal spending can be problematic,” he said. “It’s an opportune time for that debate to take place.”
Craig also said he would work with fellow Sen. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho on Kempthorne’s drive to reevaluate the Endangered Species Act. Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, there have been several efforts to restructure ESA and provide protections, legal standing and compensation for people economically impacted by endangered species.
No major reforms passed last session, but Craig said that if the perception of ESA reform efforts is changed, it stands a better chance.
“I think passage depends on how it gets handled,” Craig said. “Nobody’s trying to dissolve ESA. Ultimately, ESA is going to crumble. It’s beating people up.”
Kempthorne is traveling in Asia and was not available for comment, but spokesman Mark Snider said a new ESA bill was 70 percent written and is likely to be introduced early next year.
Snider also said his office - along with others - were tracking a Wednesday argument before the Supreme Court involving legal standing under the ESA. The court will decide before June whether landowners have legal standing to sue if economically threatened by actions under the ESA.
Other top priorities for the next session include Medicare reform, Craig said.
“There’s no question that has to be dealt with immediately,” he said. “If we wait another year or to, those trust finds will be seriously crippled. We need an immediate fix.”
Craig said that while he’d look at recommendations from a bipartisan commission, he would prefer a bipartisan congressional panel.
The senator also voiced his support for investigations into questionable fund raising by the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 election cycle. But he voiced opposition to the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which would drastically restrict PAC donations and eliminate much of the “soft money” campaigns.
Craig said he opposed McCain-Feingold because labor unions would be exempted. Unions poured millions of dollars into the 1996 campaign - most of it targeting Republicans.