Pete Domenici, Six-Term Senator From New Mexico, Dies at 85

A fiscal conservative, Mr. Domenici set out to help fulfill Reagan’s election-year promise to balance the federal budget. But it was a goal he would not achieve, as the federal deficit ballooned during the Reagan years.

Mr. Domenici supported the conservative theory that tax cuts stimulate economic growth. But he went on to grapple with the president himself, as well as with Republican colleagues in the Senate, on the long-term fiscal consequences of the White House’s proposed tax cuts and increases in military spending, questioning whether they might spur inflation and defeat any chances of balancing the budget.

Congress passed steep tax cuts in 1981, and critics of the legislation said the reductions only deepened the federal deficit and fueled a subsequent recession. Reagan agreed to a huge tax increase in 1982 to reduce the deficit, and the economy began to rebound.

Mr. Domenici also sparred with Democrats over their counterproposals to increase Social Security benefits and expand other entitlement programs.

In fiercely partisan and ideological budget debates during the 1980s, he was lauded for his steadiness and credibility in helping to draw the opposing sides together to reach budget agreements and enact them into law.

Photo

Pete Domenici, right, in 1989 during a Senate Budget Committee meeting.

Credit
Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times

It was not until the boom years of the 1990s that Mr. Domenici, in concert with a Democratic White House under Bill Clinton, succeeded in writing two balanced-budget agreements, the first in more than four decades. In doing so he clashed with the House speaker, Newt Gingrich, a Republican, calling Mr. Gingrich’s proposed tax cuts under his “Contract With America” agenda fiscally irresponsible.

His bipartisanship made him one of the most respected members of the Senate. “Mr. Domenici enjoys a universal reputation as one of the Senate’s hardest-working, most intelligent and most intense members,” The New York Times said in an editorial in May 1995.

In a documentary film about Mr. Domenici made by a New Mexico PBS station, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said: “There’s no one in the Senate, or in the House of Representatives, that can make the case like Pete Domenici can, and make it as convincingly and as powerfully as he does. And whenever…

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