NINETY-SEVEN of the Senate's 100 chairs were empty, but Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah was undeterred. ``This is one of the most important debates that has ever taken place in the United States Senate,'' he declared.
Across the aisle, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona concurred. Government spending must be curbed, he said. Otherwise, Americans born in the 1990s will be taxed $100,000 each during their lifetimes just to pay interest on the skyrocketing national debt.
At issue: the Balanced Budget Amendment to the United States Constitution. Following several days of debate, a Senate showdown is tentatively set for tomorrow evening.
The amendment fills the White House with anxiety. It would mandate that every year the president must submit a balanced budget. No president has done that since the 1960s.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate's senior Democrat and its unofficial historian, complains that the Congress that he loves will never again be the same if this amendment becomes law. He believes the Senate and House would both lose flexibility and power if the amendment passes.
Yet every passing second adds $7,500 to the national debt, every day adds $10.8 million. The ticking of that debt clock has grown into a thunderous roar on Capitol Hill. It has created what Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, the amendment's sponsor, describes as an impending financial crisis that could force the government to begin ``printing money'' to pays its bills, rather than borrowing as it does now on the open market. Such a move could lead to hyperinflation.
Trail of red ink
Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska is even more blunt. ``We're broke,'' he says.
Most of these lawmakers had little to do with America's financial plight. The red ink started flowing in the 1960s under President Johnson to pay for the Vietnam conflict and the Great Society's war on poverty.
Once having tasted red ink, however, Washington became addicted.
Before the 1960s, deficit years were almost always followed by surplus years to pay off the accumulated bills. So from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, the nation had little debt, except for $200 billion left over from World War II.
Then the borrowing began. By 1982, the national debt had climbed past $1 trillion. It passed $2 trillion in 1986; $3 trillion in 1990; $4 trillion in 1992. Today, the nation's IOUs total $4.7 trillion, or $18,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. It could reach $6.3 trillion by 1999, the White House estimates.
Passage of the Balanced Budget Amendment requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and House. It will probably pass in the House, which should vote later in March. But the Senate is problematic.
Opponents, led by President Clinton, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, and Senator Byrd, need only 34 votes to block it in the Senate. They appear to be gaining support.
Senator Hatch, who is leading the fight for passage on the Republican side, warns that the amendment probably won't get the necessary 67 votes unless ``everyone gets on the phone'' to their senators.
Yet the president and his allies in the Senate also have a serious political problem. Four out of 5 Americans favor a balanced budget amendment, the Gallup Poll reports. A ``no'' vote could be thrown back at senators on election day.
The struggle has come down to a half-dozen undecided Democratic senators: Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Sasser of Tennessee, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and David Pryor of Arkansas.
As the vote neared, Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who was previously undecided, threw a new element into the debate. He proposed an alternative amendment that would soften the original sponsored by Senator Simon.
The Reid amendment, debunked by Simon as ``balanced budget lite,'' would put Social Security off limits in efforts to balance the budget. It would also make it easier to run deficits during a recession and permit borrowing for capital projects like highways and bridges.
Simon, Hatch, and other proponents described the Reid proposal as ``cover'' for senators who want to claim they voted for some version of a balanced budget amendment, but who know it won't pass. The Reid proposal will be voted on first and few are expected to support it. Simon and Hatch say Byrd and Mitchell put Reid up to proposing the alternate amendment.
Erosion of support
There did appear to be some erosion in support for the Simon amendment at the weekend, however, when Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska criticized it. Senator Stevens, who was on some lists as undecided, said the Simon amendment would be a ``total disaster'' for Alaska because it would mean cuts in domestic programs like the National Weather Service and the Coast Guard.
Sensing Simon was in trouble, House supporters moved quickly late last week to bring added pressure on the Senate. Within eight hours, they gathered the necessary 218 House signatures on a discharge petition. That will force House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington, who opposes the amendment, to bring it to the floor for a vote, probably in mid-March.
Even if the Senate rejects the amendment, supporters hope to get the necessary two-thirds (290) vote in the House. That could force the Senate to take up the issue a second time, they say.
However, Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, who is leading the House effort for the amendment, hopes the speed with which a majority of members insisted on a vote will prod the Senate toward passage.