WASHINGTON (AP) _ Popular with the public, a proposed constitutional amendment to place term limits on members of Congress was blocked Tuesday by a Senate Democratic filibuster. Republicans sought political advantage in the aftermath.
On a 58-42 vote, two short of the 60 needed, lawmakers refused to stop debate. That left the bill in limbo, and aides and lawmakers alike said Majority Leader Bob Dole would soon pull it from the floor.
``We’ll bring it up again next year if need be,″ Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said shortly before the vote. Elected to the Senate in 1994, Thompson led the fight for the measure, which enjoys support in the 70 percent range in public opinion polls.
All 53 Republicans and five Democrats voted to curtail debate on the proposal. All the votes against were cast by Democrats.
Term limits advocates outside Congress had long wanted a vote, the better to target candidates for the next few election cycles.
Said Paul Jacob, head of U.S. Term Limits, ``I think those people who voted no ... are going to find that if they’re up for election this year, this was not a very good vote for them.″
The measure would have limited senators to two six-year terms and House members to six two-year terms, effective on the amendment’s ratification by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures.
The Constitution does not limit the length of congressional service. Lawmakers generally accumulate power through seniority, gradually rising through the years to chairmanships of subcommittees and full committees. Those posts confer enormous power over federal money and programs.
The term limits proposal was part of the House Republicans’ Contract With America that helped fuel the GOP election successes of 1994. Even so, the GOP-controlled House rejected it last year on a 227-204 vote, well shy of the two-thirds majority needed.
That made the Senate proceedings largely symbolic, although some GOP strategists hope that Dole, the party’s presidential nominee-in-waiting, as well as other Republican candidates will receive credit from limits-minded voters this fall for having brought the measure to the floor.
Democrats labored to prevent that.
``After 35 years in Congress, Sen. Dole has committed the ultimate flip-flop,″ Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler said in a written statement. ``This is an extremely late, campaign-year conversion to the term limits position.″
Fowler released a compendium of comments Dole has made in recent years in opposition to term limits.
``I think it’s clear that I’ve been lukewarm to the idea for some time,″ the Kansas Republican conceded shortly before the vote. But he said he was ``proud that Republicans″ had brought the issue to the floor of both houses of Congress.
GOP sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dole appealed for support on the vote at a closed-door party caucus Tuesday, even from Republicans who might vote against the bill on final passage.
Shortly after the vote, he said the voters ``can now sift through the records and make a determination who was for and who was against″ even going to a vote.
Democratic lawmakers, seeking to embarrass Dole and other Republicans, tried to offer an amendment to make the proposed amendment retroactive. Republicans flinched from having to vote on that and used their parliamentary prerogatives to keep it off the floor.
Several argued that term limits would help in the battle against budget deficits. Lawmakers not expecting to spend their lives in Congress, they said, would be more willing to vote against additional spending.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, first elected in 1993, said term limits would ``bring back the concept of a citizen legislature.″
Given the measure’s popularity, relatively few Democrats spoke unambiguously against it.
One who did was Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., first elected senator in 1958 and now serving his seventh six-year term. He said the framers of the Constitution in 1787 tossed aside the idea of limiting terms by members of Congress.
Byrd argued that term limits would permit ``a few large states″ to control the House of Representatives by banding together and dictating who would hold committee chairmanships.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she’d be willing to support term limits that applied retroactively. But in an apparent reference to Sen. Strom Thurmond, who is 93 and arrived in the Senate in 1954, she said ``it’s incredible″ that lawmakers with many years of seniority could vote for term limits and be permitted to serve additional time.
The five Democrats who voted to end debate were James Exon, Nebraska; Dianne Feinstein, California; Herbert Kohl, Wisconsin; Bob Graham, Florida; and Paul Wellstone, Minnesota.