WASHINGTON - The Senate yesterday buried a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution on a procedural vote, snuffing out any chance that the measure will be considered again in this session of Congress.
But some members of Congress and budget analysts said the narrow margin by which the amendment was defeated by both houses of Congress in the last month suggests that it may come back next year, alive and kicking, with the newly elected Congress.
The Senate culminated its weeklong debate over the balanced budget requirement with a vote yesterday on shutting off a filibuster waged by opponents and led by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
On a 56-to-39 vote, the Senate failed to muster the 60-vote margin needed to end the debate. Sponsors of the amendment had agreed, under a game plan forged by Republican and Democratic leaders late last week, to withdraw the amendment if the procedural vote failed, and refrain from bringing it up again in the Senate this year.
The amendment would have needed 67 votes, or a two-thirds margin, to pass the Senate under constitutional procedures. The House had fallen nine votes short of the two-thirds needed when it voted on an identical version of the amendment last month.
Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who recently announced his retirement from Congress after years of trying to get it to deal with the mounting deficits, sold immediately after the Senate's procedural vote that if the vote had been on the amendment itself it would have passed.
"The one argument for it that would have carried the day is that the $4 trillion of debt" already amassed by the government is eating up scarce budgetary resources as well as the economy's scarce investment funds, he said.
Despite the overwhelming support for the amendment, he said Senate Democratic leaders exerted "political pressure" on a dozen Democrats who previously had announced they supported it to allow it to fall to the procedural block erected by Sen. Byrd.
But Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, asserted that the measure was dead even before the procedural vote.
"This amendment had no chance of being enacted ever since the House defeated it" on June 11, he said. "Let's give the amendment a decent burial and go on.
Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., said Congress should enact a "well-crafted amendment" that would "impose the discipline the administration and Congress have lacked when confronting the deficit."
But he said that after the amendment's defeat in the House, the Senate debate was "futile" and "academic" because it could not be passed this year." Next Congress is the time, not now," he said.
Sen. Bentsen said he also opposed the amendment pending in the Senate because it contained a "troubling" provision that would have required Congress to pass any increase in the national debt limit with a three-fifths vote. It traditionally has been difficult to muster even a simple majority for debt increases.
In an usually cantankerous debate that marred the Senates usual decorum, Sen. Byrd often tangled sharply with his opponents and only thinly veiled his intent to sway the outcome using his position as the Senate's chief divider of $500 billion of funds appropriated each year.
Even Sen. Byrd acknowledged the popularity of the amendment, however, which usually receives more than 70% support in opinion polls. Quoting one of the constitution's authors, James Madison, he contended that the Senate should overrule the public on this issue and "protect the people from the tyranny of their own passions."
Stanley Collender, budget analyst with Price Waterhouse, agreed with Sen. Bentsen that the amendment's fortunes may improve next year with the new Congress. In his Federal Budget Report, he predicted that it could pass easily if the turnover in the House is large, as expected, and the deficit continues to be a looming campaign issue.
Also, he noted, President Bush has vowed to push the amendment again next year if he is re-elected. But if either of his opponents win, the picture is less clear. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, and H. Ross Perot, an independent candidate, both have said they oppose a constitutional balanced budget amendment.