WASHINGTON - Congressional Republican leaders are refusing to include a provision in their proposed balanced budget amendment that would protect states from so-called unfunded mandates, Republican staff members said Friday.

Their decision comes despite recent warnings from state and local groups that the states will not ratify the amendment unless it protects them from being forced to pay the cost of new federal requirements.

Republican leaders, who informed GOP governors of their intentions, said they have the votes in Congress to pass a straight balanced budget amendment, but cannot guarantee passage if it includes an unfunded mandates provision, said Paul Smith, press secretary to incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. The committee has jurisdiction over constitutional amendments.

Despite the setback, the National Governors' Association "still continues to believe" that the best protection against unfunded mandates would be a constitutional amendment, but the association also strongly supports legislation to deter Congress from passing on unfunded mandates, said Page Boinest, spokeswoman for the association.

For the balanced budget amendment to be passed, it only has to cover the budget, Smith said. Adding unfunded mandates language to the amendment would only "muddy the waters" and slow down the legislative process, Smith said.

If the amendment is passed by Congress, it could take several years for the required three-fourths of the states to ratify it before it could take effect.

State and local governments need relief from unfunded mandates now, which is why the GOP leaders are working to pass an unfunded mandates bin, said Laurie Head, press secretary to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is drafting legislation.

In the last session of Congress, legislation requiring a separate vote on whether to pass on unfunded mandates to state and local governments was approved by committees in the House and Senate, but was not considered by either chamber.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and incoming house Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., say that unfunded mandates legislation is one of their top priorities after Congress convenes Jan. 4. President Clinton has pledged to sign legislation if Congress passes it.

House and Senate aides were unwilling to say categorically that the debate on including unfunded mandates protections in the balanced budget amendment was over, but they indicated it was unlikely the language would be added.

The state and local groups understand the complexity of passing a constitutional amendment, but intend to continue lobbying for unfunded mandate relief.

"Dealing with a constitutional amendment is a difficult task at best and implementation is years out at best. What we want to deal with is the task at hand, which is to pass legislation" to deter Congress from passing on unfunded mandates, said Reggie Todd, legislative affairs director for the National Association of Counties.

However, state and local groups have not "closed the door" on including the unfunded mandates legislation in the balanced budget amendment, Todd said.

State and local groups "will be very involved in the whole constitutional amendment debate" in Congress, so there's still a chance to get unfunded mandates protections included, Todd said.

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