IN what could be a defining moment of the new Republican era on Capitol Hill, the Senate will decide today whether to send a balanced-budget amendment to the states for ratification.
Congress has debated such a move since the 1930s. If the amendment passes now, the GOP would capture the high ground in slashing government programs and reducing the federal deficit.
But passage could also undercut the GOP's promise to voters to cut taxes.
If the Senate rejects the amendment, it will hand the Clinton administration its first substantial victory since Republicans won control of Congress last November. The White House, trumpeting its success in reducing the deficit during the past two years, has conducted a high-profile campaign to defeat the legislation.
Either way, the debate over balancing the budget has brought new urgency to ending the nation's credit-card spending habits. And the debate will continue to frame the broadest rethinking of government since the New Deal. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has mandated that all congressional budget proposals must show a balanced budget by 2002, the projected year when the amendment would take effect.
``I happen to believe that this is sort of the centerpiece of what this Congress is all about,'' said Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas in a press conference Friday.
As of this writing, the measure was within a couple of votes of passing. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds, or 67, Senate votes; vote-counters claim 52 Republicans and about 12 Democrats are behind the measure. That means passage hinges on five undecided Democrats.
These five are: John Breaux of Louisiana, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Wendell Ford of Kentucky, and Sam Nunn of Georgia.
The undecideds have two concerns, neither of which seemed likely to be addressed soon.
Senator Nunn said yesterday he hoped to vote for the amendment, but sought language blocking the involvement of federal courts in budget disputes - taxation without representation, in short. If the Constitution required a balanced budget, and Congress failed to produce one, the amendment as written would empower unelected judges to impose solutions. ``We could have courts mandating the raising of taxes,'' Nunn said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued against changing the amendment's language, saying that future enabling legislation would address Nunn's concerns.
The other concern involves the Social Security Trust Fund, which Democrats had sought unsuccessfully to exempt from the balance sheet. Between now and 2002, Social Security will generate an estimated $560 billion in surplus revenue.
If those funds are left out of the budget equation, Congress will have to find an additional $85 billion in annual cuts to reach balance, which Republicans understandably resisted. But Democrats argue that when Social Security ceases to generate surpluses, as is expected by the year 2019, benefits will have to be cut dramatically to meet the balanced-budget requirement.
Senators Dorgan, Conrad, and Ford, in particular, may find this reason enough to vote against the amendment.
If the measure does pass, Congress will be required to establish a ``glide path'' toward a balanced budget by 2002, the year the states are expected to ratify the amendment.
Even without tax cuts, lawmakers would have to find roughly $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over seven years.
Though the Republicans have resisted Democratic demands that they show how they would balance the budget before approving a constitutional amendment, both Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich have indicated deep cuts will be needed in entitlement programs.
Those spending cuts are compounded by GOP tax-cut proposals. By both Republican and Democratic estimates, the GOP- proposed tax cuts would cost $704.4 billion over a decade. Dole, offering a first view into the kind of spending cuts Republicans would have to make to balanced the budget and cut taxes as promised, forecasts $146 billion in Medicaid and $75 billion in Medicare over five years, along with $164 billion in other entitlement programs such as veterans' benefits, and a like amount in discretionary spending.
For fiscal 1996, the White House outlines $144 billion in spending cuts over five years to pay for a tax relief proposal. But a growing chorus of lawmakers, including Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon and Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, is rejecting tax cuts as an improbable luxury.
``If the balanced-budget amendment passes,'' says Senator Packwood, ``I think probably you should not have tax cuts, and I think you are going to have to do entitlement restraints.''