WASHINGTON -- An amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced budget is likely to pass the House next week despite intensive efforts by the Democratic leadership to kill the proposal, the amendment's leading proponent said yesterday.
The prediction of victory by Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., came as the General Accounting Office released a study projecting the deficit could explode to over $1 trillion a year within the next 30 years.
The report says the deficit would prevent any real growth in the economy and living standards unless Congress and the President take prompt action to eliminate the deficit.
The GAO's conclusions are in line with recent testimony by the Congressional Budget Office that, far from harming the economy, a balanced budget requirement may be necessary to prevent serious future deterioration and stagnation.
Proponents of the constitutional amendment have said it may be the last, best hope that Congress will face reality with the economy and do something about the near $400 billion deficit.
Rep. Stenholm said fear about the deficit getting out of control has prevented mass defections from among the over 300 House members who have signed onto the amendment. He said he is still counting on receiving at least 290 votes, or a two-thirds majority, in a vote expected Wednesday.
"If people are having second thoughts about it, they haven't expressed them to me personally," he said.
His prediction came after a closed-door Democratic caucus at which House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, D-Calif., tried strenuously to siphon support away from the Stenholm amendment. Rep. Gephardt insisted that the measure, in requiring Congress to match receipts with outlays each year, would put little new pressure on President Bush to propose more realistic budgets and compromise with Congress.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., emerging from the meeting, echoed those sentiments. He noted that Mr. Bush has trumpeted the constitutional amendment in recent days in his presidential campaign, showing that he is "safely assured that this thing won't bite him."
Rep. Panetta told members of the caucus that the administration is not willing to negotiate raising taxes or significantly cutting defense, even with passage of the amendment, because it still believes the country can simply "grow out" of the deficit.
Office of Management and Budget director Richard Darman said Wednesday that with 4% growth in the next two years and 3% annual growth after that, all Congress and the President would need to do to eliminate the deficit is cap the fast-growing Medicare and other entitlement programs.
"No single economist I know of predicts a 4% growth rate" in the coming years, said House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash. Congressional Budget Office director Robert Reischauer also threw cold water on the idea Wednesday, saying that even if the economy achieves such a growth rate, it would be nowhere near enough to eliminate the deficit.
Despite the apparent cynicism of some of the amendment's supporters, Rep. Gephardt and Rep. Foley conceded that the odds appear to be against them as the House vote draws near. "There well may be the votes to pass an amendment," Rep. Gephardt said. But Rep. Foley said he was "not willing to concede the vote" just yet.
With or without the amendment, Rep. Foley said, congressional leaders and the newly elected President will have to sit down next year and negotiate another deficit reduction accord to succeed the 1990 budget agreement.
"We will need to come together to address" the problem, the said. "Eliminating the deficit is important, but it requires cooperation from the President."
Meanwhile, the GAO study provides a "sense of urgency" about the need to solve the deficit problem, said Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., in releasing the report.
"By looking 30 years into the future, GAO is telling America that our daily lives will be vastly worsened unless we eliminate our crippling budget deficit. Without tough action, the deficit will equal one out of every five dollars Americans produce in the year 2020," or 20.6% of the gross national product, he said.
But rather than resort to "process solutions to a substantive problem," like the balanced budget amendment, Congress and the President should start considering the major spending reductions and higher taxes needed to get rid of the deficit, he said.
Sen. Bradley was joined yesterday in his call for debate on substantive solutions by eight other senators who in recent days have pledged to raise the deficit as an issue before the voters.
"This is the most serious domestic issue facing our nation," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., one of the eight. But to date it has not been addressed in detail by any of the three leading presidential candidates, he noted.