WASHINGTON — The House is voting on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a step some see as the only way to fix a Congress deeply divided over how to put its fiscal affairs in order.
The vote Friday would be the first by the House on a balanced budget amendment since 1995, when a similar proposal passed with the support of the then-new Republican majority and 72 Democrats.
This time, while Republicans enjoy a stronger majority than in 1995, the odds of passage are longer. The White House has come out against it and the Democratic leadership, warning of the dire consequences of forced spending cuts during an economic downturn, is urging its members to reject it.
In 1995 and again in 1997, the Senate fell one vote short of approving a balanced budget amendment. Amendments must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the two chambers and be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures. The last amendment ratified, the 27th in 1992, concerned lawmakers' pay increases.
This time, a vote on a balanced budget amendment was dictated by the summer deal to raise the debt ceiling. That agreement also created the bipartisan deficit supercommittee, which has been unable to reach a compromise over how to reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years when single-year deficits are topping $1 trillion.
Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the chief sponsor of the measure, said Congress "has not made the tough decisions. We have overpromised the American people, and the fact of the matter is now we need to have something in the Constitution that the American people expect and demand of us, and that is a balanced budget amendment."
"The fact that we're here today is a failure of leadership," said Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., one of 87 GOP freshmen who have been strong advocates of a balanced budget amendment. "For decades Washington politicians have kicked the can down the road, choosing deficit spending over fiscal responsibility, choosing frivolous pork projects, wasteful programs and easy answers over making tough decisions and cutting back."
Democrats countered that a balanced budget requirement could force Congress to make drastic and harmful spending cuts during economic downturns when federal revenues fall and that disputes over how to reach balance could result in Congress ceding its power over the purse to the courts.
"The Republican majority wants to enshrine in the Constitution a permanent hostage crisis for our economy," Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said.
In a major break from 1995, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland has been leading the opposition to a proposal he supported 16 years before. "While Republicans claim that they want to restore fiscal responsibility, their track record doesn't offer any optimism that they will put partisan politics aside and act responsibly in the event of an emergency," he said.
Another Democrat who said he is changing his yes vote from 1995 was Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, who said, "I could never have imagined back in 1995 the chaos we experienced this summer" when the country came close to defaulting on its financial obligations because of the fight over raising the government's borrowing limit.
A senior Republican, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier of California, also said he would not support the amendment as he had in 1995. Dreier said Congress should have the will to balance the budget without changing the Constitution and warned of "protracted legal battles" in which the courts would end up deliberating over budgets that had passed years before.
If all 434 active members of Congress voted and all 242 Republicans supported the amendment, it would still require 48 Democratic votes to reach the 290 needed for a two-thirds majority.
To attract Democrats, Republicans opted for a version of the measure offered by Goodlatte that does not, as many conservatives wanted, set a tight cap on government spending or require a supermajority to raise taxes. It does require a three-fifths vote by both chambers to raise the debt ceiling and a three-fifths vote to approve a deficit in any one year. Congress could also waive the amendment in times of serious military conflict.
The amendment does have the overall support of the so-called Blue Dogs, a 25-member group of fiscally conservative Democrats. "If it does not pass both the House and the Senate," Blue Dog leader Mike Ross, D-Ark., said, "it speaks volumes about the dysfunction of the Congress."
But other Democrats pointed to a letter from some 275 labor and other mostly liberal groups saying that forced spending cuts or raised taxes needed to balance the budget when the economy is slow "would risk tipping a faltering economy into recession or worsening an ongoing downturn, costing large number of jobs."
Democrats also cited a report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimating that, if there is not an increase in revenues, the amendment could force Congress to cut all programs by an average of 17.3 percent by 2018.
The amendment would not go into effect until 2017, or two years after it is ratified, whichever comes later, and supporters say that would give Congress time to avoid dramatic spending cuts.
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