Senate duo to push deficit reduction measure

Although the heat temporarily may be off Congress to raise the $5.95 trillion debt limit since Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill began tapping federal retiree accounts to cover the government's tab, a bipartisan duo of Senate deficit hawks is preparing to attach language to promote fiscal discipline to the debt limit bill when it does resurface.

The pair, Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, are looking as their model to the Gramm- Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law--which itself was enacted in 1985 as an amendment to a debt ceiling bill, and reaffirmed in 1987 on another debt ceiling bill.

The senators' efforts are garnering bipartisan support on the House side. A conservative GOP source said members of the Republican Study Committee "would be very interested" in any attempt to balance the budget by controlling spending.

An aide to Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, said the five conservative Democrats who advocate raising the debt limit in conjunction with balancing the budget--Stenholm and Reps. Dennis Moore of Kansas, Baron Hill of Indiana, Jim Matheson of Utah and John Tanner of Tennessee--"would be sympathetic" to Feingold and Gramm's efforts as well.

But the Feingold-Gramm push to enact fixed, enforceable deficit reduction targets to balance the budget without using Social Security trust fund surpluses may run into obstacles on the Senate floor, where 60-vote points of order and the election- year desire for more spending could clash with many senators' professed desire to rein in government spending and balance the budget.

In the House, GOP leaders have repeatedly said they intend to attach legislation to raise the debt ceiling to the fiscal 2002 supplemental the administration requested last week, while in the Senate, both Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have called for a clean debt limit bill.

Should the House send the debt limit bill over to the Senate piggy-backed on the supplemental, Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is unlikely to keep it on the supplemental he reports out of his committee.

Even if he did, Byrd--who as a Budget Committee member opposed Feingold's attempt to extend and strengthen the spending caps during markup of the budget resolution--could hardly be expected to allow the Feingold-Gramm language onto any debt limit provision in the supplemental. Offered from the floor, the Feingold-Gramm amendment would then face a 60-vote point of order for, among other things, seeking to amend the Budget Act with legislation that has not first passed through the Budget Committee.

Still, the budget hawks appear undeterred. Speaking against Lott's attempt last month to bring up a simple debt limit extension, Feingold said, "I think the Senate should only vote to raise the debt limit if it is linked with reforms to prevent the need for future debt limit increases."

A Senate GOP aide said Gramm wants to "be aggressive" on the debt limit to counter what he expects to be a "meaningless" debate on the fiscal 2003 budget resolution.

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