WASHINGTON -- The Republican leaders of Congress promised yesterday to push for a constitutional amendment protecting states from getting stuck with the tab for balancing the federal budget -- but not until after a balanced budget amendment is passed.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole made the commitment at a meeting with 15 Republican governors who fear the federal government may cut its own spending by shifting the burden of programs and services to them.
[The governors also urged major changes in federal welfare laws to reduce states' costs, pressing for block grants that the states could shift among programs as they saw fit, the New York Times reported.
[In return, the governors said, they would be prepared to accept freezing federal welfare spending at 1994 levels for the next five years.
[Several of the governors said Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich left yesterday's meeting saying they agreed in principle with many of the proposals they had heard, especially an end to unlimited cash assistance and the idea of work for pay.]
"All of us are concerned that there isn't a shift of responsibilities -- I call it a shift and a shaft -- to local government," Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio said at a news conference after the meeting.
But he added that the leaders' commitment to have a vote later in the year on a constitutional amendment protecting the states "is a comfort to all of us."
Protecting the states
However, the promise fell short of what the governors had been seeking. They had wanted a provision included in the proposed balanced budget amendment that would prohibit Congress from requiring states to undertake costly new responsibilities without providing funds to pay for them.
"But we recognize the realities of it," said Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
The Democrats, meantime, offered their own proposal yesterday protect the states: a "states right-to-know" provision that would spell out where all the cuts would be made over the next seven years.
"We believe that as we go into legislation directly affecting employment, directly affecting the economy as it is with the balanced budget, that we ought to have a road map, an understanding, over the next seven years exactly what it is that the balanced budget would do," Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota said after a White House strategy session with President Clinton.
Republicans dismissed that proposal as a tactic designed to kill the balanced budget amendment, which is scheduled to come up for debate in both the House and Senate this month.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said the Republicans are planning to offer this spring a five-year plan for spending cuts that will put the government on a "glide path" to a balanced budget by 2002.
It would be impossible to develop a seven-year plan in time to meet the GOP House schedule for considering the balanced budget amendment on the floor Jan. 19, he said.
"We can't satisfy the fantasies of Democrats who have clearly demonstrated they are out of touch with reality," Mr. Armey added.
Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, insisted yesterday that the demand for a detailed spending plan was not motivated by "political reasons. We're trying to let people know what the facts are. There's millions of elderly Americans who live on Social Security, who depend on Medicare. If . . . the balanced budget amendment means we're going to get rid of Medicare, they ought to know that."
Gov. George Allen of Virginia dismissed the Democratic tactic as "a ruse . . . a red herring."
"The more you load [the balanced budget amendment] down, the harder it is to pass," he said. "The main thing is to get it out to the states so that people of the states can determine whether they want to have it be part of the federal Constitution."
The Republican governors said they considered passage of the balanced budget amendment to be the top priority.
Support for amendment
"If you believe that the sum of federal, state and local government is too big, and I believe most people do, the best place to start is by passing a federal balanced budget amendment," said Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, a potential 1996 Republican presidential candidate.
Mr. Weld was among a group of GOP governors who warned the new congressional leaders at a post-election meeting in Williamsburg, Va., in November that it would be difficult to get a balanced budget amendment ratified by state legislatures unless some protection against cost-shifting to states was included. By law, three-fourths of the states must ratify an amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.
The Senate is already acting on an earlier promise to consider legislation that would protect the states, by statute rather than .. by constitutional amendment, from "unfunded mandates."
That measure, which failed to win passage in the last Congress, is scheduled to be taken up by the full Senate next week and move through the House by the end of January. Mr. Clinton promised GOP leaders on Thursday that he would sign the bill into law, if Congress passes it.
"We see the statute that's being offered as a very, very important first step," Governor Leavitt said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, has been chief among the GOP leaders warning that the balanced budget amendment will fail if too much is added to it.
He has also delivered that message to House members who want to add a provision requiring a three-fifths vote to raises taxes instead of a simply majority.
The Republican-led House included that requirement in its rules this week, but Mr. Hatch said he would not be able to muster enough votes in the Senate to make that part of the Constitution.