WASHINGTON – As a "supercommittee" tries to find $1.5 trillion in new deficit cuts this fall, Republicans will be pressing a far more ambitious goal: passing an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget.
The idea is being pushed most forcefully by conservative activists eager to shrink the government and its spending but disappointed with the results they've achieved so far in Washington, where Democrats control both the White House and the Senate.
"Spending cuts and caps are steps in the right direction," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. But a balanced budget amendment is "the only permanent solution to control government spending and end our nation's spending-driven debt crisis," Sessions said.
House GOP leaders — short of the two-thirds margin required to pass the amendment — have held off scheduling a vote. But both House and Senate are required to hold votes this fall as one of the conditions of recently enacted legislation to raise the government's borrowing cap.
It's a decidedly uphill battle, even though Republicans control the House with larger numbers than they had in 1995, when a balanced budget amendment sailed through the chamber with 300 votes. It fell just one supporter short of the required two-thirds margin in the Senate.
There appear to be fewer Democratic backers now than there were in 1995, when 72 House Democrats voted for the amendment. For starters, there are far fewer southern white conservative and moderate Democrats in the House than there were back then.
And Republicans have made the task more difficult by pushing a significantly more stringent tea party-backed version of the amendment now than they did in 1995. The new version would virtually make it impossible for future Congresses to raise taxes by requiring a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate. It also would force a huge shrinking of government programs by capping spending at 18 percent of the nation's total economic output each year. This year, government spending is running about 25 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), the widest measure of the U.S. economy.
Democrats won't back the stricter version. But if House leaders also press a vote on the 1995 version — which permits tax increases by a simple majority vote — they'll run into opposition from conservative activists like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who say the old version is a recipe for higher taxes.
"There are lots of reasons not to like the original balanced budget amendment," Norquist said, warning that it could lead to tax increases imposed by lawmakers squeamish about cutting spending, or even by federal courts.
Given the enormity of the nation's fiscal gap, future Congresses facing a balanced-budget mandate would surely consider tax increases as a way to ease cuts to defense, Social Security, Medicare and other domestic programs.
Even tea party-driven House Republicans shunned such cuts earlier this year when adopting a nonbinding GOP budget blueprint that forecast deficits in the $400 billion range for most of the decade. Republican decided against offering a balanced budget because it would have forced cuts on current recipients of Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Lawmakers did have an opportunity to vote for balancing the budget in the form of a much stiffer budget plan offered by the conservative Republican Study Committee, which promised a balanced ledger by the end of the decade.
That balanced-budget plan, however, won only 119 votes in the 435-member House in April and a majority of Republicans opposed it. The balanced-budget blueprint relied on massive cuts to domestic programs like health care and food aid for the poor. It also featured politically implausible proposals like raising the eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits to 70.
In 1995, the failure of the balanced budget amendment to pass the Senate propelled then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to engineer congressional passage of a seven-year balanced-budget plan. It fell prey to a veto by President Bill Clinton but set the stage for a bipartisan balanced budget two years later.
The so-called supercommittee is required to produce cuts in the range of $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion — too small to satisfy the tea party-driven House. So a vote on a balanced budget amendment is an opportunity to take a tougher stand, even as lawmakers are spared difficult votes on concrete proposals to cut spending further. Should the amendment win two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate, that would negate the requirement for the supercommittee's deficit cuts or an alternative $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts if the panel fails to find a compromise or its recommendation is rejected by Congress.
The proposed amendment also is an opportunity for Democrats to cast a tough-on-spending vote. Sixteen House Democrats have signed on to the version that passed the House in 1995. So far, Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina is the only Democrat to sign on to the tea party-backed version requiring two-thirds supermajorities in the House and Senate to raise taxes.
It would take 48 Democratic votes to pass either amendment, assuming that all 240 House Republicans vote for it as well. Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., a top sponsor of both versions, is optimistic.
"We have folks across the geographic spectrum of the Democratic Party who are supporting the effort," said Goodlatte, citing Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Jason Altmire, D-Pa. "I think there's a good chance that this can be passed."
But Gingrich in 1995 had an advantage that today's GOP leaders lack — recent votes by scores of Democrats in favor of the idea. In 1992 and 1994, the Democratic-controlled House rejected attempts by a coalition of conservative Democrats and minority Republicans to pass the balanced budget amendment, falling less than a dozen votes short each time. When Republicans took over the House in 1995, there was a ready pool of Democratic votes.
The House hasn't voted on a balanced budget amendment since, even though it's been controlled by Republicans for most of that time. The Senate fell tantalizingly short in 1997.
Regardless of how the vote turns out in the House, the amendment's prospects are dim in the Senate, where Democrats control 53 of the 100 seats. It would take at least 20 Democratic votes to pass the measure if every Republican votes for it.
All 47 Republicans, however, are backing a tea party version drafted by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, requiring two-thirds votes to raise taxes and capping spending at 18 percent of GDP. When unveiling the tea party-backed measure in March, top sponsors like Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, declined to say whether they could vote for the old version they so enthusiastically backed in the 1990s.
If any amendment were to be adopted by Congress it would then have to be ratified by 38 state legislatures to become part of the Constitution.