WASHINGTON — President Reagan, protesting that federal spending is still too high, said Saturday that Congress--if it continues to resist acting on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution--could convene a constitutional convention to deal with the question.
Without specifically recommending the convention procedure authorized by Article V of the Constitution (but unused since the charter was ratified 200 years ago), Reagan referred to it with apparent approval in his weekly radio address, delivered from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.
Reagan said that the Democratic-controlled 100th Congress is "returning to its old ways and forgetting the solemn promises it made" to hold spending within the limits set by the Gramm-Rudman law of 1985, and that he believes more strongly than ever that the solution to the debt problem is a constitutional amendment requiring balanced federal budgets.
Plan Failed in Senate
Such an amendment, supported by the President, failed by one vote last year in the Senate, which then had a Republican majority.
Reagan conceded that Congress has not come up with the two-thirds vote in both houses necessary to start a constitutional amendment toward ratification, which requires approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures. He then cited the alternative procedure, a constitutional convention initiated by the legislatures of two-thirds (34) of the states. Thus far, 32 state legislatures have endorsed such a convention.
"Only two more states are needed to call such a convention," Reagan said. "And, believe me, if the Congress continues to balk at passing the balanced-budget amendment, I think the drive for a constitutional convention will pick up steam."
State legislatures approved a spate of authorizing resolutions early in the Reagan Administration, but the last affirmative vote was Missouri's, in 1983. Kentucky's lawmakers rejected the idea in March, 1986.
Opponents Fear Revision
The idea of calling a convention has been heavily lobbied on both sides. Proponents are led by industrial and taxpayer groups; opposition is centered in labor unions and organizations of public employees and senior citizens. Opponents argue that the procedure could open the Constitution to a general revision, but supporters say the work of a convention can be strictly limited in advance by law, and that such legislation has already been introduced in Congress.
Reagan opened and closed his radio talk with a Memorial Day tribute to the 37 sailors who died a week ago when the frigate Stark was struck by an Iraqi missile in the Persian Gulf. There "really are no words" adequate to convey the feelings engendered by the memorial service in Mayport, Fla., that he and Mrs. Reagan attended Friday, he said. He called on his listeners to remember the men of the Stark and to "whisper a prayer for them and their families."
In the Democratic response, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) called the Stark losses a reminder of "the risks 2 million men and women face every day serving their country," and thus of the need for a strong national defense.
Democrats Cite Cuts
Without responding directly to the blame Reagan heaped on Congress for a national debt now approaching $2.25 trillion, Spratt noted that the $290-billion military budget authorized by the House is less than the $312 billion Reagan had requested but still "more than twice what we were spending in 1980."
The House budget "fully funded readiness and training" and added $2 billion for conventional forces, Spratt said, even as it cut to $3 billion the Reagan-backed Strategic Defense Initiative project, for which the President had sought $5.8 billion.