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House rejects balanced-budget amendment

The vote on a cherished but elusive GOP goal comes 16 years after a similar measure fell short by one vote in the Senate.

November 18, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Congress members leave the Capitol for the Houses Thanksgiving recess.
Congress members leave the Capitol for the Houses Thanksgiving recess. (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — The House of Representatives rejected a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution on Friday, failing to revive a long-held and elusive goal for the GOP.

The vote came 16 years after an amendment failed to pass Congress by 1 vote in the Senate, but the intervening years have put the amendment further out of reach.

In a largely partisan 261-165 vote, the measure fell well short of 284 votes needed to pass. President Obama has said he opposes the amendment. The Senate, which also is required to vote on the amendment as part of the August deal to raise the debt ceiling, is not expected to pass it.

That's in part because the bipartisan cooperation needed to amass a two-thirds vote on any fiscal measure seems something of a pipe dream in today's political climate. Congress has locked horns all year on the best way to reduce the deficit and revive the sluggish economy.

Even as lawmakers voted on the budget amendment, the 12-member congressional "super committee" charged with reducing the deficit appeared deadlocked.

Friday's vote offered few signs of hope. Republicans watched Democrats turn away from the amendment — even those who voted for it in the past.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) noted that when he voted for the amendment in 1995 he had confidence that Congress could come together to vote for spending increases in an emergency as allowed.

"Regrettably, over the 16 years, I've lost that confidence," Hoyer said.

The amendment was essentially identical to the one voted on in 1995. It would have required the government to balance its books within two years of ratification, but no sooner than 2017. A three-fifths vote of each chamber would be required before Congress could add to the debt or raise taxes. The president would be required to submit a balanced budget and the restrictions could be waived in wartime.

The debate played out as the federal debt hit the $15-trillion mark, a milestone Republicans used to bolster their case.

"We need the discipline that a balanced-budget amendment provides," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.).

Republicans vowed to continue pushing for the amendment and are certain to use its popularity with the public to attack opponents in campaigns next year.

While the GOP has embraced the amendment and its goals, few have lined up behind specific policies that would make it happen in short order.

The budget the House approved this year, which included major changes to Medicare that Democrats criticized as extreme, still would not have yielded a budget surplus until 2040, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Eliminating the annual deficit — now roughly $1.3 trillion — would require such drastic and painful cuts that some conservatives are convinced politicians would instead be inclined to raise taxes. Those advocates and lawmakers pushed Republican leaders to propose an amendment that included a strict spending cap and mandated a larger majority vote before Congress could raise new revenue.

Leadership chose to return to the 1995 version in hopes of wooing fiscally conservative Democrats with a record of support. But the votes were not there. The amendment won support from 25 Democrats.

Four Republicans voted against it: Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), David Dreier (R-San Dimas) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan said he worried that this version "makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow, and economic freedom will be diminished."

Dreier, who voted for the amendment in 1995, said he had changed his mind. Two years after his vote, Congress balanced the budget for several years, he noted.

"I found we were able to balance the federal budget without touching that inspired document, the U.S. Constitution," Dreier said.

Several Democrats made a similar argument, saying an amendment was not needed to address a lack of political will.

Some pointed to California, among the 49 states required to balance its budget, as the cautionary tale, setting up an odd debate over who had it worse, Sacramento or Washington.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) had no doubt. "California has tried this flawed plan, and guess what? It hasn't worked."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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