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Kerrey's vote swings budget for Democrats

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The Senate voted 51-50 to approve President Clinton's budget plan Friday night, delivering his biggest legislative triumph yet.

Vice President Gore was forced to cast the tie-breaker, as he did in June when an earlier version of the plan barely passed the Senate.

Moments after Gore announced the bill's passage, spectators in the viewing galleries above the Senate floor erupted in applause, a somewhat surprising response given the flood of phone calls and letters that poured into the Capitol this week opposing the budget.

The victory was assured only in the last hour before the vote, when Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., the final holdout, reluctantly said he would support the plan rather than bring down the first Democratic presidency in 12 years.

"What we heard tonight at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue was the sound of gridlock breaking," Clinton said in an address from the White House.

"This is just a beginning, just a first step toward seizing control of our economic destiny."

The plan, with claimed deficit savings of $496-billion over five years, cleared the House on a 218-216 vote Thursday night.

Democrats called the plan an opportunity to regain control of the economy while Republicans accused the Democrats of being too eager to raise taxes and too slow to cut spending.

"Certainly not a mandate, two votes in the House and one in the Senate," Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole said sarcastically just before the roll call.

All 50 Senate votes in favor came from Democrats. All 44 Republicans and six Democrats voted no. Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham voted for the plan.

But the suspense had been drained from the roll call roughly two hours earlier, when Kerrey, a rival of Clinton's during the 1992 presidential campaign, declared his support.

Enactment of the bill capped months of drafting, bargaining and polishing by the president and the Democratic leaders in Congress as they squeezed support from Democrats concerned about raising taxes. As late as Thursday night the president was offering concessions to recalcitrant House Democrats, pledging his support for votes later this year on additional cuts in federal spending.

It was not known what Clinton's discussions were with Kerrey, although the two men met privately in the White House early in the day.

In his 8:30 p.m. speech to a hushed chamber that ended days of Hamlet-like public agonizing, Kerrey accused Clinton of backing away from his call for "shared sacrifice" to conquer the deficit.

"The price of this proposal is too low. It's too little to match the greatness needed from Americans now, at this critical moment in this world's history," he lectured. "Get back on the high road, Mr. President, where you are at your best."

Nonetheless, Kerry added:

"President Clinton, if you are watching now, as I suspect you are, I could not and would not cast a vote that would bring down your presidency."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., jumped to his feet in a standing ovation, and Kerrey's Democratic colleagues rushed to congratulate the Nebraska senator.

White House aides, watching on television, broke into applause.

Kerrey said Republicans had offered to back his bid to hold a summit on spending cuts if he opposed the bill. But Kerrey said ultimately he didn't trust the Republicans.

"My heart aches with the conclusion that I will vote yes for a bill which challenges Americans too little," he said, "because I do not trust what my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will do if I say no."

Kerry wasn't the only senator ill at ease.

"I don't like to pay taxes either, but the time has come that we have to do something about the deficit," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz. "And we have to do it today."

More than one senator relied on the charts and graphs that have become standard fare since the presidential candidacy of Ross Perot to drive home economic points. But only one _ the flamboyant Republican from New York, Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, resorted to magic.

To dramatize his dim view of the bill, he made a dollar disappear, prompting Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., to suggest that he consider a career with a carnival.

Democrats say the bill will raise taxes by $241-billion and eventually reduce spending $255-billion over the next five years. More than 90 percent of the taxes would come from those with incomes over $100,000.

Some of the more affluent retirees would pay tax on more of their Social Security benefits, but the only provision that would hit the middle class directly is a 4.3-cent-a-gallon increase in the tax on gasoline.

The major spending restraint in the bill would cut the growth of the Medicare health program for the elderly by $56-billion. A defense reduction of $70-billion or more is anticipated but not assured.

Hours before voting on the bill, the Senate also rejected a claim by GOP members, including Connie Mack of Florida, that the legislation violates the constitution by raising taxes retroactively.

Mack complained that taxpayers made plans based on assurances that the tax increases would not be retroactive.

"The people of this country feel like they have been lied to, that they have been betrayed, that they have been deceived," he said at a news conference.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Washington Post, Scripps Howard News Service and staff writer David Dahl was used in this report.