Reporting from Washington — The Senate rejected two versions of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, bringing an unceremonious end to another requirement of last summer's hard-fought agreement to raise the debt ceiling.
A provision that both chambers of Congress vote on a balanced-budget amendment was included in the August agreement to win support from reluctant conservatives in the House. But the votes, which had to occur before the end of the year, were largely viewed more as campaign ammunition than a moment for policy change. With a two-thirds majority required for passage, the amendment also failed in the Republican-led House last month.
The centerpiece of the summer debt ceiling deal — the creation of a bipartisan congressional "super committee" charged with producing a plan to reduce federal deficits — fizzled last month in a deadlock.
The panel's failure triggered an automatic budget cut of $1.2 trillion over 10 years starting in 2013, split between defense and non-defense spending. Yet even that may not occur, as several GOP lawmakers said Wednesday that they would introduce legislation next month to head off the defense cuts.
That means the one lasting result of the debt ceiling battle, which nearly brought the country to default, could be the $917 billion in spending cuts over 10 years — a sliver of the total that GOP lawmakers wanted — that were passed with the deal.
Nearly all Republicans have aligned behind the idea of mandating that the federal government balance its books, a notion popular with the public. Democrats' views are more varied, making passage of such an amendment out of a divided Congress unlikely.
The two proposals on the Senate floor Wednesday represented competing approaches to the amendment — as well as an opportunity for political cover.
The Republican version, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would have required a two-thirds vote for Congress to raise taxes or to spend more money than the government takes in. It sought to cap federal spending at 18% of gross domestic product, a 6-percentage-point drop from the current level, and prohibited the courts from forcing Congress to raise taxes to balance the books.
Hatch argued that the amendment would force not only fiscal discipline but a new commitment to a narrower mission for government.
"This is not just a balanced-budget amendment," he said. "It's a constitutional amendment for limited government."
The White House opposed the amendment, saying in a statement that it would "set a severe and unrealistic spending cap that would undercut the federal government's ability to meet its core commitments to seniors, middle-class families and the most vulnerable, while reducing our ability to invest in our future."
Hatch's amendment failed on a 47-53 partisan vote.
The Democratic alternative, offered by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), would have allowed Congress to more easily override the restrictions and made it more difficult for Congress to cut taxes.
The proposed amendment prohibited Congress from cutting income taxes on those earning more than $1 million a year. It also aimed to protect Social Security by taking the trust fund off the books and by prohibiting the courts from ordering Congress to reduce benefits.
Udall said his measure was aimed at finding "common ground."
"It creates flexibility, depending on the economic condition we face and the year in which we find ourselves," he said.
The measure was soundly rejected, 21 to 79, with nearly all Republicans voting against it, along with 31 Democrats and two independents.