WASHINGTON -- The Senate, which less than two months ago passed a budget with a staggering projected deficit, Wednesday approved a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget in future years.
The vote was 69-31, two more than the two-thirds vote needed, with 48 Republicans and 21 Democrats supporting it. Sen. Russell Long, D-La., cast the deciding 67th vote.
To become part of the Constitution, two-thirds of the House, 290 members, must approve the amendment and then it must be ratified by at least 38 states within seven years. President Reagan hailed the Senate vote and said it now is 'up to the liberal leadership in the House to heed the will of the people' and pass the amendment. 'Let us work together ... so we can put this country back on track,' he said.
Under language of the resolution, the amendment would go into effect two years after ratification, so if the full seven years were required the amendment would not be effective until 1992. But backers predict quick ratification, perhaps within 20 months, making it effective by 1987.
A balanced budget constitutional amendment has been suggested for years but never before has come up for a vote in Congress. The Senate outcome was by no means certain, and President Reagan lobbied a few senators by telephone earlier in the day to support the measure.
Just before the vote, Senate Republican leader Howard Baker told his colleagues they had 'the responsibility to submit this issue to the people.'
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called it 'an insult to the Constitution' and 'a political charade,' and said, 'The Senate must not be a party to this irreponsible scheme to turn voodoo economics into voodoo constitutional law.'
The chamber, its galleries packed with tourists and reporters, was uncharacteristically quiet as the senators voted. After Long's vote, members rushed over to shake the hand of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., one of the chief sponsors.
'This is a great day for America,' Thurmond declared later. 'We feel this is a step that will turn this country around, once it is ratified by the states.'
'We think it has a good chance of passing the House,' Thurmond said.
But Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., an opponent, said: 'I am convinced the tide will turn. I doubt the House will pass it this year. If it is passed, I don't think the states will ratify it. I flatly predict that.'
House opponents have kept the amendment bottled up in committee so far, and a subpanel is holding hearings on it now. Without House action by the time the 97th Congress adjourns, possibly by mid-October, the amendment will die and the entire process will have to be started anew.
A discharge petition that would bypass the committee and send the amendment directly to the House for a vote had 184 signatures Tuesday, of the 218 required.
The constitutional amendment is strongly supported by Reagan, who endorsed the 1983 budget resolution that has an estimated record deficit of between $115 billion and $146 billion. The budget was approved by Congress June 23.
Thurmond said he saw no conflict in the two votes. The balanced budget amendment is necessary to relieve 'the pressures' on Congress from constituents and lobbists to vote for increased spending and budget deficits, he said.
'This is really going to help,' Thurmond said. 'We can now say we can't spend more than the income. This is a first move to balance the budget.'
The amendment was passed after the Senate, 73-27, rejected a move by Cranston to replace it with a substitute allowing deficit spending for Social Security and veterans benefits.
The Senate-passed constitutional amendment carries a rider, approved Tuesday, to require a three-fifths vote by Congress to raise the national debt ceiling -- an addition some believe jeopardizes its chances in the House.
Since only a majority is needed to raise taxes, some senators argued the rider would make it far easier for Congress to increase taxes every year to solve a budget out of balance.