WASHINGTON — Rejecting the idea Congress can't control its spending impulses, the House turned back a Republican proposal Friday to amend the Constitution to dam the rising flood of federal red ink. Democrats – and a few GOP lawmakers – said damage from the balanced-budget mandate would outweigh any benefits.
The first House vote in 16 years on making federal deficits unconstitutional came as the separate bipartisan "supercommittee" appeared to be sputtering in its attempt to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions to head off major automatic cuts. The lead Republican on that panel said members were "painfully, painfully aware" of its Wednesday deadline for action and would work through the weekend.
The House voted 261-165 in favor of the measure to require annual balanced budgets, but that was 23 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment.
Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the proposal, arguing that such a requirement would force Congress to make devastating cuts to social programs.
Most Republicans favored the measure, but there were prominent exceptions.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's point man on budgetary matters, agreed with GOP colleagues that "spending is the problem." But he added that "this version of the balanced budget amendment makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow and economic freedom will be diminished."
Likewise, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said lawmakers should be able to find common ground without changing the Constitution, and he expressed concern that lawsuits filed if Congress failed to balance the budget could result in courts making decisions on cutting spending or raising taxes.
In all, 235 Republicans and 25 Democrats voted for the amendment, four Republicans and 161 Democrats opposed it. The other two Republicans voting no were Justin Amash of Michigan and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Later in the day, the top Republican on the deficit-reduction supercommittee indicated no deal was near but efforts would continue through the last weekend before Wednesday's deadline.
"We are painfully, painfully aware of the deadline that is staring us in the face," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. "When we have something more to report, we will report."
With the national debt now topping $15 trillion and the deficit for the just-ended fiscal year passing $1 trillion, supporters of the constitutional amendment declared it the only way to stop out-of-control spending. The government now must borrow 36 cents for every dollar it spends.
"It is our last line of defense against Congress' unending desire to overspend and overtax," Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said as the House debated the measure.
But Democratic leaders worked aggressively to defeat it, saying that such a requirement could force Congress to cut billions from social programs during times of economic downturn and that disputes over what to cut could result in Congress ceding its power of the purse to the courts.
Even had it passed, the measure would have faced an uphill fight in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The House passed a similar measure in 1995, with the help of 72 Democrats. That year, the measure fell one vote short of passing the Senate.
Constitutional amendments must get two-thirds majorities in both houses and be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect. The last constitutional amendment ratified, in 1992, concerned lawmaker pay increases.
The second-ranking Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, voted for the amendment in 1995 but said the situation has vastly changed since then. "Republicans have been fiscally reckless," he asserted, saying the George W. Bush administration would not cut spending elsewhere to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, major tax cuts and a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"A constitutional amendment is not a path to a balanced budget," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. "It is only an excuse for members of this body failing to cast votes to achieve one."
The measure on the floor Friday, sponsored by Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., mirrored the 1995 resolution in stating that federal spending could not exceed revenues in any one year. It would have required a three-fifths majority to raise the debt ceiling or waive the balanced budget requirement in any year. But Congress would be able to let the budget go into deficit with a simple majority if there was a serious military conflict.
The Republicans' hope was that the Goodlatte version would attract more Democratic supporters, and the "Blue Dogs," a group of fiscally conservative Democrats, said they were on board. But there are now only 25 Blue Dogs, half the number of several years ago when there were more moderate Democrats, mainly from rural areas, in the House.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who is not a Blue Dog member, said he was supporting the amendment because "there's an infinite capacity in this Congress to kick the can down the road. ... We are going to have to force people to make tough decisions."
But other Democrats pointed to a letter from some 275 labor and other mostly liberal groups saying that forcing spending cuts or higher taxes to balance the budget when the economy was slow "would risk tipping a faltering economy into recession or worsening an ongoing downturn, costing large numbers 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 have gone into effect until 2017, or two years after it was ratified, and supporters said that would give Congress time to avoid dramatic spending cuts.
Forty-nine states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, although opponents note that states do not have national security and defense costs. States also can still borrow for their capital-spending budgets for long-term infrastructure projects.The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.