WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives plans to vote Friday on a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget — an effort expected ultimately to fail, but one that could have lingering political impact.
Long a goal of conservatives, many Democrats are feeling the heat to sign on, too, in an era when federal budget deficits appear out of control, national debts in Europe are threatening the global economy and U.S. politics is debt-obsessed. Yet most Democrats, including President Barack Obama, believe that a balanced-budget amendment would be a fiscal straitjacket that would prevent government from being able to respond to economic downturns.
To pass, the measure needs 290 House votes, or a two-thirds majority. But the White House and Democratic House leaders — some of whom supported the amendment the last time the House voted on it, 16 years ago — are urging opposition.
Even if the House approves, getting the necessary two-thirds, or 67, votes in the Democratic-run Senate is viewed as an uphill quest. Should it pass both houses of Congress, it would need to be ratified by three-fourths of the 50 states to become an amendment to the Constitution.
The debate, which began Thursday, and Friday's vote are likely to be remembered in 2012 congressional campaigns. To many lawmakers, and voters, the amendment is a bold attempt to force Washington to do what its elected officials have been unable to do — put its fiscal house in order.
A vote against the amendment is something "you can use in a campaign," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion. "You vote against it and someone can call you a big spender."
The House vote comes in the same week that the national debt topped the $15 trillion mark. The federal deficit in fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, was $1.3 trillion, only slightly below the previous year's record amount.
The balanced-budget amendment would require that Congress not spend more than taxes bring in for any year, unless three-fifths majority votes in both chambers agree otherwise. It also would require a three-fifths majority to raise the debt ceiling. It would require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress, but the requirement could be waived for military emergencies.
Many conservatives think the amendment is not tough enough in curbing spending, but Republican leaders argue that any amendment has to get Democratic support to prevail. When a similar proposal came up in 1995, it passed with 300 votes — including 72 Democrats.
Republicans are eagerly watching how those Democrats who remain in office vote Friday — notably Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, now the second-ranking House Democrat.
Hoyer, who voted yes in 1995, is now urging a no vote.
"I did not contemplate the irresponsibility that I have seen fiscally over the last ... eight years of the Bush administration and the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate," he explained. "It's not a tough vote to pretend that you are going to go for a balanced-budget amendment by having some amendment on the floor. What is tough is to pay for things."
Republicans see a reluctance to give the GOP any kind of victory in these highly polarized times. Hoyer is "is claiming that now is not the time to require the federal government to balance the budget; nothing could be further from the truth," said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., a key architect of the amendment.
The proposal has picked up some Democratic support, notably from the conservative 26-member House Blue Dog Coalition.
"If we have learned anything in Washington in the past decade, it is that neither party can be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.
But pressure to defeat the amendment from Democratic and allied interest groups has been intense. Dozens of groups, including leading civil rights, professional and labor organizations, sent lawmakers a letter on Wednesday.
They warned that the amendment "is a recipe for making recessions more frequent, longer and deeper, while requiring severe cuts that would harshly affect seniors, children, veterans, people with disabilities, homeland security activities, public health and safety, environmental protection, education and medical research."
The Obama administration holds the same view. It issued a terse statement saying flatly that the amendment "is not a solution to the nation's deficits" and "would impose serious risks for our economy in several ways." Forcing a balanced budget, the White House said, would put "at risk the retirement security of millions of Americans."
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue struggling to find ways to cut the deficit, and even to fund routine government operations. Current authority to fund the government expires Friday, but Congress is expected to agree to a stopgap budget extension that will keep agencies running through Dec. 16.
On another fiscal front, behind closed doors, the bipartisan supercommittee remained deadlocked Thursday. It has until Wednesday to agree on how to cut at least $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over the next decade. Republicans resist raising taxes, and Democrats resist cutting spending on priority programs such as Medicare.
"I'm still optimistic, but I'm realistic as well. I don't hear anything that sounds big and bold," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Noted House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, "The problem all year has been getting to yes."
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