WASHINGTON — The House, on a 354-15 vote, expressed resounding sentiment Friday for adoption of tough new legislation aimed at achieving a balanced federal budget within six years.
"This offers the greatest hope to rid Congress of its fiscal inebriation and set it on the road to fiscal sobriety," Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) said during partisan debate in which Democrats generally supported the balanced-budget drive but warned against cutting spending inequitably.
The House action--on a procedural motion to guide negotiators in meetings with the Senate--was taken two days after senators voted 75 to 24 to approve a sweeping plan designed to end federal budget deficits by 1991 by forcing cuts of $36 billion a year in the size of the deficit.
Divided Over Details
The House did not specifically endorse the Senate plan, reflecting deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats over details of how a budget-balancing mechanism should work. However, the lopsided House and Senate votes strongly indicated that Congress will come up with some sort of budget-balancing plan within a matter of weeks.
Although skeptics contend that today's $200-billion deficits cannot be eliminated within six years, grass-roots protests have forced lawmakers from both parties to move ahead with balanced-budget legislation in efforts to escape political blame for the unprecedented flow of red ink.
Senate Republicans, backed by President Reagan, began pushing for approval of a balanced-budget plan two weeks ago, clearly hoping to prevent Democrats from making an election issue of massive deficits in their bid to recapture control of the Senate next year.
Join Move in Droves
The Democrats, though concerned that the GOP-engineered plan could empower the President to cut social programs more deeply than defense, joined the balanced-budget move in droves, apparently fearing that the deficit issue would work against them politically if they did not.
In the weeks ahead, fierce partisan fighting can be expected over Democratic attempts to speed up the spending cuts projected in the Senate plan; to cut defense as deeply as social programs; to postpone deficit reduction in case of a recession and to limit the President's ability to slash spending on his own if Congress fails to override a veto.
Friday's action was largely symbolic but provided an important indication of prevailing sentiment in the House as the partisan battles take shape. The move came in the form of non-binding instructions to House negotiators who will begin meeting with Senate counterparts next week to work on a compromise balanced-budget mechanism.
Debt Ceiling Measure
The Senate plan was attached to legislation that would raise the ceiling on federal debt to $2 trillion from $1.8 trillion. Government borrowing will hit the current ceiling in about three weeks. The debt bill would extend borrowing authority for about a year.
Contrasted with the Senate debt legislation, which carries the balanced-budget rider, the House version of the debt bill has no amendments.
The House-Senate negotiators will face mounting pressure to come up with a plan before government borrowing authority expires around the end of the month.
'Game of Chicken'
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House conferees, said the Senate "has chosen to play a high-stakes game of chicken" by holding the debt bill hostage to acceptance of a balanced-budget plan. "The game has begun, and we're going to have to play."
Republicans argued that a tough enforcement mechanism in the Senate plan, giving the President unprecedented power to cut spending if Congress fails to do so, was made necessary by years of excessive spending under Democratic-run Congresses.
Democrats, on the other hand, charged that the failure of Reagan economic policies--resulting in the current huge federal deficits--prompted the need for a balanced-budget plan.
Motion Made by Michel
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said that "all of us in good conscience can embrace" the kind of general mechanism called for in the motion for Friday's action, which was made by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
However, Wright said, Democrats are concerned that the Senate plan would "shrink, shrivel, starve and suffocate" programs for the poor and disabled, while preserving the defense buildup.
To draw up a Democratic alternative to the Senate plan, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) appointed a task force that is expected to make a report to the House Democratic Caucus next week.