WASHINGTON – A proposed constitutional amendment that would require Congress to balance the budget failed in the House Friday, capping a months-long campaign by congressional conservatives to build support for the measure.
The proposed balanced budget amendment won a majority in the House, with 261 voting in support of the measure and 165 opposed. But the amendment needed a two-thirds majority -- or 284 votes -- to pass.
Though a few Republicans voted against the proposal, GOP leaders blamed the Democrats for scuttling the measure and warned of the implications for the nation's troubled finances.
"It's unfortunate that Democrats still don't recognize the urgency of stopping Washington's job-crushing spending binge," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. "A number of economists and experts support a Balanced Budget Amendment because it would help create a better environment for private-sector job growth."
Republicans who backed the amendment said it was the only way to get Congress to put its fiscal house in order. Democratic critics said a balanced budget requirement would result in drastic cuts in Medicare and other social programs when economic downturns put the budget out of balance.
It was the first House vote on a balanced budget amendment since 1995, when the House approved it but the bill fell one vote short in the Senate.
The vote was held just days after the national debt hit $15 trillion. Lawmakers pointed to that milestone as further proof Congress needs to figure out a lasting way to curb its spending appetite.
The vote also comes as a bipartisan congressional committee struggles to identify at least $1.2 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade. With that process sputtering, Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, had described the budget amendment as the "last line of defense against Congress' unending desire to overspend and overtax."
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. This year, only 25 Democrats supported the proposal.
Several Democrats who voted for the proposal in 1995 switched to vote against it on Friday. Among them were House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
On the other side, four Republicans voted against the proposal. They were Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif.; Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Justin Amash, R-Mich.; and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
Dreier had argued that lawmakers should be able to find common ground on deficit reduction without changing the Constitution, and expressed concern that lawsuits filed when Congress fails to balance the budget could result in courts making decisions on cutting spending or raising taxes.
Ryan, though, said he was concerned the amendment as drafted would make it "more likely" that taxes would be raised to balance the budget.
"Without a limit on government spending, I cannot support this amendment," he said in a statement. Conservatives had pressed for a tougher version of the amendment that would have also set tight caps on annual spending and required a supermajority to raise taxes.
Constitutional amendments must get two-thirds majorities in both houses and be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The last constitutional amendment ratified, in 1992, concerned lawmaker pay increases.
Hoyer said the situation has vastly changed since he supported the balanced-budget proposal in 1995. "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., mirrors the 1995 resolution in stating that federal spending cannot exceed revenues in any one year. It would require 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.
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."
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.