WASHINGTON -- Amid growing signs that a balanced-budget constitutional amendment could be approved this year, the Bush administration's budget director challenged the Democratic-controlled Congress yesterday to eliminate the $400 billion federal budget deficit by capping spending on mandatory federal programs.
Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that such a cap, coupled with a strong economic growth program, could eliminate the deficit and create a surplus as early as 1997.
"The deficit cannot be addressed seriously unless the growth of mandatory programs is slowed," said Mr. Darman, testifying in favor of a balanced-budget amendment to the House Budget Committee.
"Mandatory programs have taken over the federal budget. . . . They just continue to go and to grow automatically," he said.
Mandatory programs cover a wide assortment of areas, including Medicare, child nutrition and veterans' pensions to federal employee health benefits.
Social Security, Mr. Darman said, should be excluded from the spending lid.
"Now, it is not the main source of the problem. . . . We would put Social Security aside," he said.
An attempt by New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, ranking Budget Committee Republican, to cap mandatory programs earlier this year collapsed in the wake of moves to exempt veterans and other groups from the spending limits.
But Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democratic, has introduced a constitutional amendment that calls for a balanced federal budget.
The measure is slated to come to a Senate vote this month. It currently has 27 co-sponsors, 14 of them Republicans. The last time a balanced-budget amendment came to a Senate vote in 1986, it lost by one vote.
It takes a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and support of three-quarters of the states to enact a constitutional amendment. Opinion polls suggest the proposal is popular, and members of Congress, intent on survival, are showing increasing interest in it as a way of getting control of spending.