Hopes for amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget were dashed Wednesday when the last Senate holdout, Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, declared he would not support a Republican-backed measure.
The freshman senator - who voted three times for a similar amendment while serving in the House - said weeks of agonized deliberation convinced him that a proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, could do more harm than good in steadying the economy and ensuring future prosperity.
“I’ve struggled with this decision more than any other in my life,” Torricelli said, in explaining why he had switched from a supporter to an opponent. In the end, Torricelli said, he said he “owed it” to his constituents to “exercise my best judgment” and oppose the Hatch version.
Torricelli’s decision was a victory for the Clinton administration, which vigorously opposed the amendment.
President Clinton personally lobbied Torricelli, who had promised during his election campaign last year to support a balanced-budget amendment.
Attention now will shift to negotiations between the White House and Congress over balancing the federal budget within five years. The last time the federal budget was in balance was 1969.
Although there is more optimism than usual about prospects for balancing the budget in the short term, there is widespread concern about deficit spending in the long term - particularly when the huge baby boom generation reaches retirement age and becomes eligible for Social Security and Medicare.
Torricelli’s decision buries the balanced-budget amendment as a top legislative initiative in this Congress, although the Senate will go through the formality of a vote on the Hatch proposal - perhaps next week. But the issue is certain to remain among the GOP’s chief political weapons in the midterm congressional elections next year.
Republican leaders in both houses have defined the amendment as a potent weapon in their political arsenal. But it appears in recent weeks to have lost some of its punch, as Democratic opponents - joined by a few House Republicans - have argued with some effect that its adoption could lead to cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare for the elderly.
After Torricelli’s announcement, Hatch said he was “terribly disappointed” but did not intend to give up the fight.
He said he would continue probing the ranks of opponents to find the crucial vote to pass his amendment, despite the risk of appearing to be “looking for a wishbone in a softboiled egg.”
Passing constitutional amendments requires a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.
Senate backers had already collected 66 votes, one shy of the number needed in the 100-member chamber.
Torricelli’s vote would have put the amendment over the top and sent it on to the House, where Republican leaders acknowledged they were still a few votes short there.
Hatch also said he would not accept Torricelli’s invitation to work out a compromise incorporating some of the Democrats’ ideas. “I think we have to change a (Democratic) vote,” he said. “There’s no way we can change the amendment.
If we did, it would make it very difficult to keep Republican votes.”
Torricelli’s decision came after his own alternative balanced-budget amendment was defeated by the Senate. His proposal would have exempted “imminent” foreign crises, economic recessions, and borrowing for capital improvements, such as roads and bridges.
Hatch and his allies scoffed at those exceptions. “Let’s get serious,” Hatch said. “These are such gaping loopholes that they would make a joke of trying to impose any discipline on our runaway spending.”
In defending his proposal, Torricelli said history and common sense dictated that any amendment be flexible enough to enable future presidents and Congresses to cope effectively with international crises and domestic economic downturns.