Balancing the US budget: Act 2. Congressional backers of constitutional amendment say time ripe

A deficit-conscious Congress, in the midst of the budgetmaking process for fiscal 1987, is at the same time considering the persistently proposed balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. The idea of requiring the federal government to produce a balanced budget each and every year has picked up some significant support in Congress recently. The mostly conservative backers of the amendment have been joined by a leading liberal, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois.

``We spend $181 billion every year on interest on debt,'' says Senator Simon. ``We clearly have to get a hold of this deficit.''

In fact, supporters claim, the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law, which mandates a balanced federal budget by 1991, has made lawmakers more receptive to the idea of balancing the budget. ``This bill picks up where Gramm-Rudman left off,'' explains Simon.

Another element of pressure on lawmakers to consider their own balanced budget amendment is the threat of a constitutional convention to consider a budget amendment. Thirty-two of the 34 states needed have approved a convention call, but the number has been stuck at that figure for two years.

Supporters of the amendment say it would be a permanent guarantor of fiscal responsibility by the government.

Detractors say it would hamper the government's ability to direct the economy and would be impossible to implement. ``If we want to balance the budget, we can balance it right now. Whom are we kidding?'' says Sen. Lowell Weicker (R) of Connecticut. ``All the authority that is needed is here to balance the budget.''

Debate over the bill that would add a 27th amendment to the US Constitution has monopolized floor time in the Senate since the end of last week, and majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas predicts there will be a vote on it before the week is over.

A similar bill in the House has 219 cosponsors. If both Senate and House approve the measure, it would then go to the states for ratification. Two-thirds of them would have to approve the amendment for it to become the law of the land.

Though supporters of the balanced-budget amendment in both houses say it is too early to count votes, they express confidence that they are on the winning side of this issue.

Congress nearly put its imprimatur on the idea in 1982. A Senate version of the amendment managed to snare the two-thirds majority required for the passage. But it fell short in the House, with only a 60 percent majority.

Supporters of the constitutional-convention call hope that a vote of the Kentucky legislature next week will break the 32 barrier. Convention supporters are also looking at upcoming votes in Washington and Minnesota.

Many lawmakers want to see a convention avoided at almost any cost, because of fears that the constitution could be drastically tampered with in the process. Partly for that reason, Senator Dole has said that he hopes another state might pass a convention resolution soon, putting more pressure on Congress to pass the constitutional-amendment bill.

``All I'll say is that it looks good,'' says Senate Judiciary Chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, a driving force behind the bill in the Senate, of the chances that the bill will gain the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D) of Texas, a coauthor of the House bill, is more explicit: ``We have 30 members cosponsoring this bill that didn't vote for Gramm-Rudman, and 270 members voted for Gramm-Rudman. That's 300 members right there who could be for this.

``I think we have a very good chance of passing in the House.''

Opponents are not conceding victory yet. Linda Rogers-Kingsbury, executive director of Citizens to Protect the Constitution, notes that 14 states have rejected the constitutional convention call in the past year.

David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union, a lobbying organization supporting the amendment drive in state legislatures admits: ``I wouldn't want to try to ressurect this if we see some negative votes'' in coming months.

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