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Republicans divided over path on balanced budget amendment

November 09, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey
  • House Speaker John A. Boehner walks through the near-empty chamber.
House Speaker John A. Boehner walks through the near-empty chamber. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA )

Episode #135 of the serial drama featuring GOP pragmatists battling GOP purists is airing this week.

As House Republicans prepare for a vote on a balanced budget amendment – as promised by the debt limit deal this summer -- the two sides are in a tug of war over which version of the amendment to vote on.

Conservative groups on Wednesday released a letter urging lawmakers to oppose the version they consider weak – a so-called clean amendment that mandates that Congress must balance the budget but does not include strict spending restraints or a super-majority vote to raise taxes.

"A 'clean' BBA provides the excuse big spenders seek to raise taxes and grow government. Any lawmaker committed to restoring American solvency cannot seriously vote for a BBA that does not include a super-majority requirement for tax increases," the letter said.

It was signed by 32 conservative groups, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth.

But the groups' preferred version of the amendment is all but certain to go down in flames when the House votes next week.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the GOP point man on the amendment and the sponsor of both versions, argues that such an outcome would blunt momentum for a balanced budget amendment after years of Congress sidelining the idea.

"The question becomes do you vote on one that becomes symbolic or political or one that actually has some chance of passing?" Goodlatte said Wednesday, noting that a survey of GOP members showed "they have spoken up overwhelmingly in favor of wanting one that has a chance of passing."

Even passing the clean amendment is an uphill climb. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote, meaning Republicans will need the vote of at least 48 Democrats to pass it. The clean version of the amendment has 15 Democratic co-sponsors, and Goodlatte said he knows of "dozens" more wanting to vote in for it.

But to do so, those Democrats would be bucking their leadership, which is urging a no vote.

"I believe that a balance budget at this point in time is not what we need to do," Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer said last week. "What we need to do is enact substantive, tough policies which will lead us to a balance not in the short term -- it will take more than a decade to get back to balance."

Even if the amendment makes it out of the House, it not expected to pass the Senate.

A promise to vote on an amendment before the end of the year was added to the debt deal in order to get House conservatives on board. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he hadn't yet scheduled the vote in his chamber – and he seemed in no rush.

"That's not on my schedule to do next week," he told reporters. "We may want to do it -- we may want to do it after Thanksgiving break."

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