WASHINGTON — THE proposed balanced-budget amendment fell short in the United States Senate when it received just 63 votes - four shy of the necessary two-thirds. But the intensifying effort to put spending limits into the Constitution now moves to the House of Representatives.
A possible victory in the House later this month could bring the issue back to the Senate, proponents say. But Senate leaders insist that the amendment is dead in this session.
The contentious issue tied up the Senate for a week and drew solid opposition from President Clinton, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate's senior Democrat and chairman of the powerful committee on appropriations.
Even with all that clout, the amendment gathered broad bipartisan support from 41 Republicans and 22 Democrats.
Supporters, such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, reflected widespread citizen concern that red-ink spending in 33 of the last 34 years could bankrupt future generations. Senator Domenici said there is a need to ``tie our hands so we can't spend our children's legacy.''
In spite of $4.7 trillion in national debt, opponents like Senator Byrd denounced the amendment as a ``gimmick,'' which only masked the ``spineless'' failure of Congress to make tough spending decisions.
Senators were pulled by conflicting forces throughout their debate.
The public clearly favors the amendment by as much as a 4-to-1 margin in some surveys. But Democratic leaders fought the amendment, saying it could raise taxes and sharply curtail spending for Social Security, defense, and other popular programs.
Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar and expert on Congress, says if the Senate had voted by secret ballot, the amendment would have lost overwhelmingly. But with the next election just eight months away, and with public anger toward Congress high, members were feeling the heat to vote ``Aye,'' he says.
Then why did the amendment ultimately lose? David Mason, a specialist on Congress at the Heritage Foundation, says one major reason was Byrd, who denounced the amendment as a ``hydra-headed monster'' that keeps coming back to life every time Congress kills it.
Byrd, who is president pro tempore of the Senate, garners his influence in several ways, Mr. Mason explains.
First, he is a master of the Senate's rules and procedures. Every member knows that to get on the wrong side of Byrd is to risk future retaliation at a critical moment, when he can use his knowledge of the rules to derail a senator's favorite project.
Second, Byrd won't hesitate to use his influence. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona told one reporter recently that when anyone clashes with him, Byrd ``usually wins.'' Once, when Senator DeConcini had helped Byrd, the senator pulled strings to get DeConcini on the appropriations committee. But another time, when he angered Byrd, DeConcini suddenly lost his chance to serve on the intelligence committee.
Third, Byrd keeps tight control of the purse strings. As chairman of the appropriations committee, his influence extends from getting a post office built in Arizona to putting in a new stretch of interstate highway in New York. If a senator has a pet project, Byrd is the man to see.
Senator Mitchell, a former federal judge, says a telling failure of those who supported the amendment was finding a way to enforce it. Sponsors worried that if a future Congress failed to pass a balanced budget, the courts might order either spending cuts or higher taxes.
To prevent that, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, chief sponsor of the amendment, and his allies agreed to a change that made Congress itself the ultimate enforcer of the amendment - a move that Mitchell charged would turn the entire thing into nothing but ``window dressing.'' Without court authority to back up the amendment, Congress could continue to do exactly what it does now -
pass unbalanced budgets.
Mitchell also lamented the amendment's provision that permits an unbalanced budget only in case of war or with a 60 percent vote. He charged that the amendment gives too much power to a 40 percent minority that can thwart the will of a majority of Congress.