A Senate debate over a children's health insurance amendment offered by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., today exploded into a full-scale partisan brawl, with Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., threatening to pull the budget resolution if the amendment passes.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., quickly responded by inviting Lott to follow through on his threat and suggested it might be best to "go back to the drawing boards" and craft a new budget.
"This is clearly a deal buster," an angry Lott said in condemning the Hatch-Kennedy amendment for being "outside the budget agreement" reached between the White House and GOP congressional leaders. If the amendment passes, Lott said, "the wheels will come off" the budget deal.
Lott said that in an attempt to derail Hatch-Kennedy, Republicans will offer "perhaps a series of second degree amendments, each one of which will get hairier and more difficult for senators to vote against."
The Senate was struggling to finish work on the budget resolution, which passed the House shortly before 3:30 a.m. today on a 333-99 vote. A majority of Republicans, 201-26, and Democrats, 132-72, voted for the House budget resolution on final passage. An attempt by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Shuster to get more money for highway and mass transit funding failed on a 216-214 vote.
"We could pull this down," Lott said of the budget resolution Senate leaders originally hoped to complete action on later today. Lott said he spoke to President Clinton, who supports the concept of Hatch-Kennedy but who "committed to me that he is going to try to get Democratic votes for our second degree amendment" to Hatch-Kennedy.
"I have assurances from the Democratic leadership and the president that this amendment will be defeated," Lott said of Hatch-Kennedy. If not, he said, "our only other option would be to pull down this budget resolution."
Kennedy told Lott that despite his assurances of Clinton's position, "the vice president is on his way up here to vote for our position" if there is a tie.
Disagreeing with Lott, Daschle said he thinks Hatch-Kennedy -- which calls for raising tobacco taxes to fund increased children's health insurance coverage -- "is consistent" with the budget agreement. "If it means bringing down the budget agreement, as some of our colleagues have threatened, then so be it," Daschle said. "Let's do it. Let's go back to the drawing boards."
Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., offered the first GOP substitute amendment, which restated the $16 billion worth of children's health provisions in the proposed agreement. He warned that if Hatch and Kennedy do not back down, they risk losing not only their bill, but the money included in the agreement as well. "If this budget agreement falls apart, there is little chance this body is going to approve $16 billion for child health care," Domenici said.