WASHINGTON -- The leading House sponsor of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution has gathered enough support to discharge the amendment today from consideration by the House Judiciary Committee and force a vote on the House floor early next month, congressional aides said yesterday.
Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, the amendment's author, is expected to announce today or tomorrow that he has secured the 218 signatures needed to set in motion a discharge petition steering the legislation clear of the judiciary committee, where it has been bottled up for years, said Ed Lorenzen, the conngressman's legislative aide. The petition would make a vote on the House floor possible as early as June 8, he said.
The Texas Democrat, who in pushing the amendment is taking on the House Democratic leadership for the second time this year, has so far attracted an unprecedented 278 co-sponsors to his measure, Mr. Lorenzen said. That is only 12 votes short of the 290 total, or two-thirds majority, needed for approval of the constitutional measure in the House.
The Senate is expected to take up the amendment on June 4 under an agreement between Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and the amendment's chief sponsor there, Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., Mr. Lorenzen said.
Rep. Stenholm, who is chairman of the House's Conservative Democratic Forum, successfully led a drive earlier this year against the leadership's propose peace dividend bill, which would have diverted $6.4 billion of fiscal 1993 defense spending into domestic areas,
Rep. Stenholm argued at the time that the defense savings should be used to reduce the nearly $400 billion deficit. The same fears that the deficit is getting out of control that propelled the earlier win have been feeding sentiment for the constitutional amendment, Mr. Lorenzen said.
"We saw the debate shift to the deficit a couple of months ago" during the peace dividend battle, he said. "Everybody was ignoring the deficit before that, but now everyone is talking about how to reduce it," he said.
House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., have all said they oppose, the constitutional amendment, but they also have conceded it is likely to pass this year.
Rep. Panetta and Rep. Gephardt have said they would like to force a vote on the draconian spending cuts and tax increases that would be needed to achieve a balanced budget in tandem with the vote on the constitutional amendment.
One congressional aide, who asked no to be named, said the leadership is drafting a deficit-reduction plan designed to be a "reality check" for members who think that balancing the budget will come easily after passage of the constitutional amendment.
To avoid proposing tax increases, which most Republicans would oppose, the leadership plan may include "impossibly" deep cuts in defense and other spending programs, this aide said.
Mr. Lorenzen said he has not seen the details of the leadership's plan, but said he doubts the proposal will even materialize because of the overwhelming numbers in favor of the constitutional amendment. "I don't think they will do that," he said.
Rep. Stenholm and Sen. Simon have said Congress should begin the difficult debate over how to cut the deficit after the constitutional amendment is passed and sent to the states for ratification. They estimate it will take three-quarters of the states two years to approve the measure, making 1997 the earliest it would take effect.
Meanwhile, witnesses appearing before the House Budget Committee in a series of hearings have warned that despite the widely anticipated rapid approval of state legislatures, state and local governments would be harmed by the deep spending cuts Congress is likely to impose under the amendment.
Steven D. Gold, director of the Center for Study of the States, said that state and local governments would "lose" in two ways, through decreased financial aid and through more onerous mandates and regulations.
"With federal ability to attack national problems constrained, shifting responsibilities to state and local governments would probably escalate markedly" and compound the "considerable fiscal stress" states, cities, and counties already are suffering, he said.