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Rancor Rises in Senate Battle on Balanced Budget

March 02, 1995|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional debate over the balanced-budget amendment turned sharply partisan Wednesday, complicating the delicate task of its Senate supporters, who struggled--without success--to find a single additional Democrat to cast the deciding vote for the measure today.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) recessed the Senate for the day to give advocates of the amendment more time to woo a handful of Democrats, any one of whom could provide the needed vote.

But even as the cross-party lobbying continued, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) attacked Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), saying that they had "lied" by promising in recent reelection campaigns to support a balanced-budget amendment.

Daschle and Feinstein, both of whom oppose the amendment, disputed the charge, saying that they would vote for a balanced budget if the amendment explicitly protected the Social Security Trust Fund. At the same time, two other Senate Democrats--who say that they potentially could back the amendment--accused Republicans of being disingenuous in their public reassurances that the trust fund would not be used to help balance the budget.

The nasty exchanges presaged the sharp political accusations certain to follow if the amendment goes down to defeat at its scheduled vote today--as it surely will if one more senator's mind is not changed. "This is a war," said Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.).

At the end of the day, Dole acknowledged that amendment supporters remained one vote short but that he and Daschle nevertheless agreed that the Senate will vote on the measure this afternoon.

"We're still hopeful and we're still receptive," a grim Dole said late Wednesday afternoon. "But we've gone about as far as we can go."

Earlier, as if anticipating such an impasse, members of both parties began staking out positions from which they can blame the other party for the amendment's defeat.

Dole led the way, saying that he intends to resort to a parliamentary procedure allowing him to bring the amendment up for a vote at a later time--perhaps, he suggested, shortly before the 1996 elections, a remark that quickly drew Gingrich's backing.

"Let's see what happens as we get near the elections," Dole said.

The GOP tactic of attacking some Democratic foes of the amendment while negotiating with others whose minds might be changed is not risk-free. As Republicans dangle further compromise offers before Democrats, they risk losing the support of GOP die-hards--in the House as well as the Senate--who may be unwilling to yield another centimeter.

"It's a tough, difficult balancing act, sure," conceded Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

But the tactics do reflect the deepening conviction among Republicans that they are in an enviable situation--whether the amendment fails or succeeds.

On the one hand, its passage would be a shining legislative achievement for the new Republican majority in Congress. Its defeat, however, would hand Republicans what they believe would be a powerful campaign weapon to bash Democrats in 1996.

As Dole said: "We really win if we win. We may even win if we lose."

Gingrich put it this way: "As a Republican I have mixed emotions."

If the amendment is defeated, added Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), "it will be terrifically damaging" to Democrats.

Democrats insisted, however, that Republicans would be to blame if the amendment dies.

"They have it within their power" to ensure passage of the amendment by explicitly protecting Social Security from being used to reduce the budget deficit, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Added Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.): "The party that suffers is the one that controls Congress and can't get the job done."

All week, Dorgan and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) were two prime GOP targets as possible converts to support the amendment. But they said on Wednesday that their negotiations with the Republicans led them to conclude that, despite GOP reassurances to the contrary, amendment backers indeed intend to use Social Security to help reduce the budget deficit.

As evidence, Dorgan and Conrad cited the sequence of GOP offers they received.

"Last night, the first suggestion was: 'Well, we will stop using the Social Security Trust Fund surpluses in the year 2012. Does that satisfy you?' " Conrad said.

When he rejected that, Conrad said, "they came back and said: 'Well, how about if we stopped using the Social Security Trust Fund surpluses by the year 2008?' I said, 'No, that's not acceptable.' " The final GOP offer was the year 2006, Conrad said.

"I think we've just got a fundamental difference here with respect to this amendment," he told the GOP.

Dorgan said he told amendment backers that explicit language protecting the Social Security Trust Fund would win his vote instantly. "And they'll have five or six other votes as well, in my judgment," he said.

Gingrich unleashed his harsh attack on Daschle and Feinstein at his daily news briefing.

"Feinstein just plain lied," he replied to a question about the Senate impasse over the amendment. "She went back home. She campaigned in a very close race. She said: 'I'm for a balanced budget.' "

Feinstein said later that she voted for a version of the balanced-budget amendment that protected Social Security. "I do not consider that I lied to my constituents because I voted for a balanced-budget amendment," she said.

Asked whether she was concerned about further Republican attacks, Feinstein said that she is well prepared for bruising political combat after her years as mayor of San Francisco.

"I've been (attacked) by the very best in the business," she said. "It doesn't move me."

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