House falls short on balanced budget amendment to Constitution

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2011 

WASHINGTON_ A constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget to always be in balance _ a signature Republican strategy to curb federal spending dramatically _ failed Friday to win enough votes for passage in the House of Representatives, dooming the effort for the remainder of this Congress.

The House voted 261-165 for the amendment, 23 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. Voting for passage were 236 Republicans and 25 Democrats, while four Republicans and 161 Democrats opposed the measure.

The vote was a blow to Republican leaders. They have been touting the amendment for years as a way to force lawmakers to take politically difficult steps to reduce the nation's $15 trillion debt _ and to embarrass Democrats who are reluctant to handcuff government's ability to ease the pain of economic crises.

GOP leaders insisted on Friday's vote as part of the August debt-reduction deal. They crafted the amendment to be similar to one that won 300 votes, including 72 Democrats, in 1995.

Friday, though, Democratic reluctance and strong opposition from the White House led to the amendment's demise. Most of the Democrats supporting the amendment were Blue Dog Coalition conservatives.

"It's become clear that a constitutional amendment is the only way to force Congress' hand toward fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark.

But most Democrats were vehemently opposed.

"The corrective is forging a political consensus, not amending the Constitution," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. "In fact, to leap to the latter as an expedient is to admit the collapse of our democratic institutions and to abandon all faith in our collective ability to respond to one issue, albeit a major one, of the day."

Some Republicans sympathized.

"I was wrong," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., when he backed the amendment in 1995. "We all know very well we're not going to balance the budget overnight, and I don't think that amending the Constitution is going to do anything to help us get there."

As the House debated, members of the congressional supercommittee remained stalemated. That’s the 12-member bipartisan panel trying to devise a plan to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit over the next decade. By law it must report its plan to the Congressional Budget Office by midnight Monday.

Co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said that talks were continuing, but he reported no progress. "We are painfully aware of the deadline staring us in the face," he said.

The amendment debated Friday by the House would have forced Congress to spend only what is collected annually in revenue, unless three-fifths majority votes in both chambers agreed otherwise. A three-fifths majority also would have to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

The president would have to submit a balanced budget to Congress, but the requirement could be waived for military emergencies.

Democrats railed against what they called Republican hypocrisy. Instead of trying to amend the Constitution, a process almost certain to fail, why not make the tough choices that the supercommittee needs to reach a deal?

"Don't talk about it. Just do it," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "Don’t just preach fiscal responsibility. Practice it. It will take no courage to vote for this amendment, but it will take courage to balance our budget by paying for what we buy."

Republicans had viewed Democrats like Hoyer as attractive political targets, since he voted yes to the similar proposal 16 years ago.

Hoyer said he stood by his 1995 vote, but "there's a lot of water over the bridge since that time," notably a lack of fiscal discipline that's led to record federal deficits.

ON THE WEB:

1995 House balanced-budget amendment vote

Debt reduction deal

Domenici-Rivlin report

Bowles-Simpson Commission report

Website of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

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Big bipartisan group of lawmakers pushes debt-panel to aim high

Congressional debt panel told to be bold or risk economic disaster

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