WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday voted against changing the Constitution to require a balanced budget as Congress hit yet another dead end in its search for a way out of its fiscal morass.
Two proposals for balanced budget amendments were doomed by the partisanship that dominates Congress. All but one Republican voted against a Democratic measure, and every Democrat opposed the GOP-backed version. Amendments to the Constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of state legislatures.
With the votes, Congress fulfilled a commitment to take up balanced budget amendments that were part of the agreement last summer to raise the government's debt limit in exchange for $2 trillion in future spending cuts.
The House held its vote last month, falling 23 votes short of reaching the two-thirds majority.
Last month also marked the failure of the supercommittee, another product of the debt limit agreement, to come up with a course of action for making inroads into $1 trillion-a-year deficits and a national debt that has topped $15 billion.
Other efforts this year to "go big" on deficit reduction, including talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner and a bipartisan commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wy., and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, also proved futile.
The inability of the 12-member bipartisan supercommittee to come up with a long-term deficit cutting plan reinforced the argument that only a balanced budget amendment could save Congress from its overspending habits.
"The only way that Congress will exercise the discipline to balance the budget is if the Constitution forces it to do so," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
But opponents, led by Democrats and including the White House, said a balanced budget requirement could lead to drastic cuts to social programs when a poor economy reduces federal revenues and that Congress could end up ceding budget decisions to unelected federal judges if lawmakers can't agree over how to reach balance.
"I believe it would be a profound mistake for this country," said Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "I believe adopting this amendment would have and could have disastrous consequences for the economy and for the future strength of this nation."
Democrats were particularly critical of the Republican plan, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that required a two-thirds majority of both chambers to raise taxes, three-fifths to raise the national debt, and stated that spending for any budget year could not exceed 18 percent of gross domestic product. Senate Budget Committee Democrats said federal spending hasn't fallen below 18 percent of GDP since 1966.
Hatch replied that "the votes we cast today will tell the American people whether we honestly acknowledge the fiscal crisis posed by a $15 trillion national debt and whether we are serious" about finding a cure." Congress "will not kick its overspending addiction alone," he said. "Congress needs some help, and the Constitution is the way to get that help."
The vote for the Hatch proposal was strictly along party lines, with 53 Democrats opposing it and 47 Republicans in support.
The vote for the Democratic measure, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col., was more lopsided, with only 20 Democrats and one Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada, voting for it.
Udall said he hoped his proposal would raise awareness among his colleagues "about the very serious consequences of government spending without accountability."
Udall's approach differed from Hatch's in that it had no caps on spending, did not require a supermajority to raise taxes, prohibited Social Security funds from being used to balance the rest of the budget and barred millionaires from getting tax cuts unless the budget was in surplus. Both provided for waivers in times of war and national emergencies.
While the president does not have a role in advancing constitutional amendments, the White House issued statements opposing both proposals. It said that instead of amending the Constitution members of both parties should "move beyond politics as usual and find bipartisan common ground to restore us to a sustainable fiscal path." It also warned that an amendment could also result in the hard decisions lawmakers should be making being handed to the federal courts.
The Senate came within one vote of approving a balanced budget twice in the 1990s, but it hasn't taken up the issue since the last vote in 1997.
Including the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, the last time in 1992 with an amendment concerning congressional pay increases.
Forty-nine states – all but Vermont – have some form of balanced budget requirement. These generally apply only to operating budgets, allowing states to borrow for long-term capital investments. Cuts to the federal spending resulting from a balanced budget mandate could reduce federal grants to the states, making it harder for them to meet their budget goals.
The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.