Critics call it 'coward's way out'

Economists band together to denounce it. Some Democrats and moderate Republicans call it a sham, a coward's way out, and worse. But the constitutional amendment to balance the budget is making its way through Capitol Hill, meeting surprisingly little resistance.

After two weeks of off and on debate, the Senate has agreed to complete action by noon of Aug. 4. House action, although less certain, could come soon afterwards.

So far about the only visible sign of Senate opposition has been from a group of six members, led by Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California. And they have vowed not to use the ultimate Senate weapon, the filibuster.

A filibuster would inevitably bring a vote to limit debate, since 61 senators have already signed on the amendment. And that would confine discussion, Senator Cranston says, adding that he wants to avoid being seen as ''obstructionists.''

But also clearly at work in Congress is the popularity of the balanced budget amendment among voters. Even opponents praise the idea behind it. As a Senate leadership aide told reporters recently, the concept plays well back home because ''you're talking about making the government do what everybody else has to do.''

Such sentiment is at least part of the reason that most of the anti-amendment leaders in the Senate are those who are not up for reelection next fall. It also may explain the relatively low-keyed opposition.

Still, Cranston maintains that the amendment can be defeated. Even if the Senate finds the 67 votes required to pass it, he predicts that it will be stopped either in the House, which has yet to act on it, or in the states, where three-fourths are needed to ratify an amendment to the Constitution.

The opposition strategy developing in the Senate is to try to change the amendment by such additions as permitting an unbalanced budget in time of ''national emergency'' or guaranteeing protection for social security or veterans' benefits.

Meanwhile, says Cranston, opponents hope arguments against the amendment will begin to sink in, especially as labor and senior citizen groups join the battle.

Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York charges the balance budget amendment would result in either ''slashing social security or devastating national defense.'' He derides it for putting ''algebra'' into the Constitution in provisions to limit tax increases according to estimates of national income.

''We're not at all sure this is going to work,'' says Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland, who calls the amendment a ''refuge for sluggards and cowards.''

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont writes off the proposal as ''more government by slogan'' and an effort to ''take complex problems and put them down to one-liners.''

Opponents say that the amendment opens the door to the courts to take over the congressional budget work, since it would take court rulings to interpret the amendment.

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