WASHINGTON — House GOP leaders have scheduled a vote next week on a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget.
But they're shelving a version of the amendment that tea party activists favored. Instead, the Republican leaders are pressing for Democratic votes in hopes of actually passing the measure. That's what happened in 1995, with lots of help from Democrats.
The amendment requires that Congress not spend more than it receives in revenues unless three-fifths of both the House and the Senate vote to do so and requires the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress.
"The American people are demanding action," amendment sponsor Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said. "Our constituents understand what it means to live within their means and they expect nothing less from the federal government. A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is the only way to ensure that Congress curtails its spending."
The amendment is a product of frustration at the chronic inability of Congress to curb the deficit — much less balance the budget.
It still faces a decidedly uphill battle, even though Republicans control the House with larger numbers than they had in 1995, when a balanced-budget amendment sailed through the chamber with 300 votes. It fell just one supporter short of the required two-thirds margin in the Senate.
There appear to be fewer Democratic backers now than there were in 1995, when 72 House Democrats voted for the amendment. For starters, there are far fewer Southern conservative and moderate Democrats in the House than there were back then. And longtime amendment supporter Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, has switched positions to oppose the amendment.
GOP conservatives had rallied behind another version of the balanced budget amendment that would put a tight cap on the federal budget and require a two-thirds vote in Congress to raise taxes. But there's no way many Democrats would vote for that version.
To amend the Constitution, it takes a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate and ratification by 38 states. At least 48 Democratic votes are needed to get the required two-thirds margin in the GOP-controlled House.
Goodlatte said the older version of the amendment was the only version that has a chance to pass.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, whose views carry weight with conservative lawmakers, opposes the older version.
"Passing a (balanced budget amendment) that allows a tax hike by a simple majority would allow lawmakers to balance their budgets on the backs of taxpayers, rather than forcing Congress to rein in spending," said a letter from Norquist's organization and a host of other conservative groups.
Given the enormity of the nation's fiscal gap, future Congresses facing a balanced-budget requirement would surely consider tax increases as a way to ease cuts to defense, Social Security, Medicare and other domestic programs.
Even tea party-driven House Republicans shunned such cuts earlier this year when adopting a nonbinding GOP budget blueprint that forecast deficits in the $400 billion range for most of the decade. Republicans decided against offering a balanced budget because it would have forced cuts on current recipients of Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Lawmakers did have an opportunity to vote for balancing the budget in the form of a much stiffer budget plan offered by the conservative Republican Study Committee, which promised a balanced ledger by the end of the decade.
That balanced-budget plan, however, won only 119 votes in the 435-member House in April and a majority of Republicans opposed it. The balanced-budget blueprint relied on massive cuts to domestic programs like health care and food aid for the poor. It also featured politically implausible proposals like raising the eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits to 70.
In 1995, the failure of the balanced-budget amendment to pass the Senate propelled then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to engineer congressional passage of a seven-year balanced-budget plan. It fell prey to a veto by President Bill Clinton but set the stage for a bipartisan balanced budget two years later.
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