Overcoming stalling and a raft of amendments by critics, the Senate Judiciary Committee finally voted 15-3 Wednesday to pass a constitutional amendment to require balanced federal budgets.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, began debate on the bill Tuesday, saying, "We need to stop the games, pass this amendment and start living like responsible adults under a responsible national budget."But delaying tactics - or games - soon emerged. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. - an ardent opponent of the amendment - invoked a little-used rule to force the committee to stop meeting Tuesday after the Senate had been in session for two hours.
To help get around that, Hatch reconvened the committee at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday - which most senators deem an unreasonably early hour on Capitol Hill, where few meetings begin before 10 a.m.
But the markup would take all day because Democratic critics had lined up numerous amendments to it. And Byrd again threatened to use the two-hour rule to shut down the committee.
In response, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole threatened to adjourn the Senate so Byrd could not use the rule. Byrd decided to allow the Senate to remain in session and to allow the Judiciary Committee to finish its all-day debate.
All that comes after another critic, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., forced a one-week delay last week, using another committee rule that allows any member to force such a delay on any bill one time.
The committee also shot down amendments suggested by critics and some friends of the legislation.
The closest vote came over an amendment by Sen. Dianne Fein-stein, D-Calif., to bar use of an estimated $619 billion of Social Security surpluses to balance the budget by 2002. It was defeated 10-8.
Feinstein said the money set aside should be used for the retirement of the baby-boom generation, but using it to balance the budget could be a loophole in the balanced-budget amendment.
Hatch countered that her exemption "creates a loophole Congress would drive trucks through," predicting Congress would find ways to use it to finance everything from defense to health care.
In the end, all committee members endorsed the balanced-budget amendment except three Democrats: Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Feingold.
The measure now goes to the full Senate. Two-thirds of both houses must pass the amendment, and three-quarters of state legislatures must ratify it before it is added to the Constitution.
Hatch - who has pushed such an amendment for 18 years - said it is "a major step in the work of this Congress to reform itself and its relationship with the American people."
He notes that the national debt is nearing $4.8 trillion. "This translates into an individual debt burden of $18,500 for every man, woman and child in America."
Of note, the Senate version of the bill does not include requiring a three-fifths vote in Congress to raise taxes, which the leading House version does.