The Senate refused Tuesday to strip Social Security funds from calculations in the GOP-sponsored balanced budget amendment as a key Democratic senator declared her support, moving supporters to within one vote of the two-thirds majority needed for passage of the amendment.
By a 55-44 vote, senators turned back the controversial proposal offered by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., which, if passed, would have removed the Social Security Trust Fund from the federal budget.
“This is serious business,” Reid said before his amendment came to the floor for a vote. “We’re dealing with the most successful social program in the history of the world.”
Reid’s proposal would have separated the Social Security program from the federal government’s general budget. Otherwise, Reid and other Democratic leaders said, a balanced budget amendment could result in higher Social Security taxes and lower benefits.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chief sponsor of the balanced budget amendment, ridiculed the Democrats’ use of Social Security as a “risky gimmick” to try to scare voters and kill the measure in the Senate. “Everybody knows that if the Reid amendment passes, this balanced budget amendment is going to go down,” Hatch said.
Hours before the failing vote on Reid’s measure, freshman Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., appeared at her first solo news conference to announce her reluctant support for the balanced budget amendment.
Unsmiling and looking grim-faced, she described the GOP proposal as flawed and urged her colleagues to vote for alternative versions offered by Democrats.
One of those alternatives, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would exclude Social Security from the budget after fiscal year 2003. The Feinstein amendment is expected to come up for debate and a vote today.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders are pressing ahead in their effort to force the government to balance its books every year after 2002. The amendment they propose to add to the Constitution would require a three-fifths vote of Congress to approve any deficit spending.
But before the amendment can be added to the Constitution, it not only must be approved by two-thirds of members in both houses of Congress but also must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
House action on the legislation has stalled as members there await its fate in the Senate, where Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters Tuesday he counted “about 66” votes for the measure, one less than needed for passage.
Thus, the focus of attention turned to the remaining Democratic fence-sitter: Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, a first-term senator who supported the balanced budget amendment two years ago as a member of the House.
Torricelli told reporters Tuesday he will make an announcement today.
Some legislative sources said Torricelli is leaning against the measure but doesn’t want to say so until after an alternate version he supports is debated and voted on in the Senate. As of late Tuesday, Democrats had not completed filing nearly two dozen amendments to the measure.
Despite losing Landrieu to the ranks of amendment supporters, Democratic leaders continued to predict the measure will be defeated.
“I think momentum is on our side,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said.
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