A funny thing happened on the way to the debate on a balanced-budget amendment.
Republicans on Wednesday were seriously considering whether they should use one of their two chances to submit Republican versions of a balanced budget amendment for a floor vote to instead push one written by a Democrat - Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah."I think the version I have written is the best and would solve everybody's concerns. It is what should be put into the Constitution. Many Republicans agree and are trying to convince their leadership," Orton said.
Adding praise of Orton's version was - unusually - Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. "I really applaud what he is trying to do. The trouble is that his amendment makes so much sense that they probably won't do it.
"But I'm talking to Republican leaders trying to get them to use it as one of their alternatives," Hansen said. "Bill has done a really great job on this. . . . Maybe I should watch what I say because some Republicans in the Third District might give me heck, but truth is truth."
The unusual situation developed this way:
A constitutional amendment to force a balanced budget had been bottled up in committee by Democratic leadership. But a majority of House members - including all of
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Utah's members - signed a petition forcing a floor vote on it.
That petition created a rule under which Democrats and Republicans would be able to each submit two different versions of a balanced budget amendment for a vote. Whichever one passes last - if any pass - is the version officially adopted in what is called a "king of the hill" vote. The votes were expected Wednesday and Thursday.
Orton said Democrats have already settled on submitting an amendment by Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, to force a balanced budget unless three-fifths of Congress votes otherwise in any year, and one by Senate Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., to exclude Social Security and other measures from the budget balancing.
"Leadership really doesn't want a balanced budget amendment," Orton said, noting it would make legislative work harder. "The Stenholm amendment can probably get the two-thirds vote to pass the House, but not the Senate. Mine could pass both."
Orton said many senators worry that Stenholm's requiring a three-fifths vote to exceed a balanced budget in an emergency is too tough. Orton's amendment would require only a simple majority but would make it subject to a presidential veto.
Orton's amendment would also force a balanced budget only for spending in years after passage and would not force quick elimination of the current deficit.
Many members worry that forcing a budget that would try to wipe out the deficit in a few short years would require dramatic cuts to programs, including Medicare and Social Security.
"I tried to talk to everyone, see what their concerns are and solve them. But it takes a while to get people to listen to a freshman," Orton said. Hansen agreed, "He tried to talk to everyone and work out a compromise. That is what is supposed to happen here but often doesn't."
Whether Orton would succeed in gaining Republican backing was unclear Wednesday morning. "I told them they only get a shot at a balanced budget amendment once every decade or so. So why waste both their shots? Why not support a bipartisan effort to do something that makes sense?" Orton said.
Meanwhile, Democratic leadership lost the first round of the balanced budget amendment fight on Tuesday. The House defeated 220-199 a simple bill - not a constitutional amendment - that would force the president to submit a balanced budget.
Hansen voted against it, saying it was only a sham to give political cover to those who eventually oppose a balanced budget amendment. Orton voted for it, saying he did not oppose what it does. Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, did not vote but said he supported the bill.
Owens added he plans to vote for a constitutional balanced budget amendment.