WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats dealt a severe blow to the Republican legislative agenda Thursday, killing the heart of the GOP's campaign platform--a constitutional amendment that mandates a balanced budget in seven years. Conceding a significant loss of momentum, grim-faced Republicans immediately set out to exact political revenge, blaming President Clinton and targeting six Democrats who voted against the proposal even though they had backed a virtually identical measure only a year and a day earlier.
The Republicans also displayed a determination to press on with the rest of their program, but they acknowledged that several other key elements--most notably tort reform and another constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms--now face a tougher road.
For all the furor surrounding Thursday's vote, the outcome was not in doubt by the time the roll call commenced with senators sitting stiffly at their desks, rising one by one to utter "aye" or "no" as their names were called--a custom reserved for historic occasions.
All but one of the Senate's 53 Republicans--Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon--voted for the amendment, along with 14 of 47 Democrats. But that was still one vote shy of the two-thirds majority required for passage of any proposed constitutional amendment. The House had passed the measure by a vote of 300 to 132.
Despite the amendment's defeat, this Congress probably has not heard the last of the controversy. Immediately after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas switched his vote, making the final tally 65 to 35. The move put Dole on the prevailing side, a parliamentary maneuver that will enable him to call up the amendment for debate and another vote at any time. And he made it clear that he intends to do just that, perhaps shortly before the 1996 elections as a ploy to focus further heat on the amendment's Democratic opponents.
Had the Senate approved it, the measure would have gone to the states for ratification. It would have mandated a balanced federal budget either in seven years or two years after ratification by the required three-fourths (38) of state legislatures, whichever was later.
By all accounts, the measure could have garnered 70 votes or more in the Senate if the GOP had added language explicitly barring the use of the Social Security trust fund surplus to help reduce the federal budget deficit. But Republicans refused and lost the votes of a handful of key Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
The Social Security trust fund currently runs huge surpluses that help to offset the federal deficit. If the trust fund were taken out of the 1996 budget, the deficit would be $66 billion higher. Without Social Security in the equation, lawmakers would have to find at least another $558 billion to balance the budget over the next seven years--on top of the $1.2 trillion now estimated to be the total cost of achieving a balanced budget by the year 2002.
After the amendment's defeat, Clinton said a constitutional measure was not necessary to reduce the deficit and offered to work with Congress "to make further reductions in the deficit."
Eliminating the deficit was the overarching credo of the House GOP's "contract with America," and the balanced-budget amendment--along with a presidential line-item veto--enjoyed top billing in the 10-point campaign manifesto.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) indicated that the GOP will go after Democrats who opposed the amendment--especially those who have voted for such a measure in the past.
"Now, we do have a strategy to try to pick up seven Senate seats in 1996," which would give the GOP a filibuster-proof majority, he said. "I think that a number of Democrats today are going to make that strategy easier."
In 1994, the Democrat-controlled Senate fell short of approving a balanced-budget amendment by four votes, 63 to 37. The six senators who voted for the 1994 amendment but voted against it Thursday were Feinstein, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.
Referring to Democrats who now have voted both ways on a balanced-budget amendment, Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said the situation raises "a real character issue."
Republicans have made no secret of their intention to portray such Democrats as cynics. As Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) argued in an earlier interview: "It's one thing for the Democrats to vote for it when they think it's not going to pass. . . . But in reality, they never were for it."
Some GOP strategists suggested Thursday that Feinstein has placed herself in the same kind of politically vulnerable position as former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.), whose reelection defeat last year was blamed on the deciding vote she cast in favor of Clinton's budget in 1993.