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Hopes dim for amendment to balance budget
Congress is ready to try again, but bipartisanship of ‘95 is lost
Question of the Day
Fifteen years ago, the budget deficit stood at $107 billion, government debt totaled about $5 trillion and a balanced-budget constitutional amendment came within one senator's vote of passing Congress, buoyed by the likes of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden, who made an impassioned plea on the floor for its adoption.
Fast-forward to 2011, when the deficit has topped $1 trillion for a third year in a row, the debt has tripled to hit $15 trillion, and Congress once again will vote on a balanced-budget amendment. But Mr. Biden, now the vice president, has gone silent and others who supported the amendment in the 1990s say they have soured on it.
"What I said in 1995, I absolutely agree with today. Unfortunately, I did not contemplate the irresponsibility that I have seen fiscally over the last eight years of the Bush administration and the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate, and this last few months, where Republicans took America to the brink of default and placed the confidence of the world in America's fiscal judgment at question," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, told reporters this week, explaining his high-profile shift from supporter to opponent.
That has left what was once a largely bipartisan effort now in tatters. Liberal Democrats say the amendment goes too far, conservative Republicans say it doesn't go far enough, and a tenuous political center still defends the middle ground.
"I'm for it. I was for it before it was cool," said one of those centrists, Rep. Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat.
He said Congress has shown it cannot help itself when it comes to controlling spending. "Obviously, we do not have the discipline to do this, no matter who the hell's in charge. We've got to get the balanced-budget amendment."
On Wednesday, the Blue Dogs, the more conservative members of the House Democratic Caucus, endorsed the amendment, going against Mr. Hoyer and the rest of the Democratic congressional leadership ahead of the debate, scheduled to begin Thursday. A House vote is slated for Friday, and the Senate will vote later this year.
The last time the balanced-budget amendment was seriously considered was in 1995 and 1996, just after Republicans won control of both chambers in the 1994 elections. The amendment garnered 300 votes in the House in 1995, which was well more than the two-thirds needed, but fell one vote shy in the Senate a year later.
The amendment disappeared for more than a decade as the deficit closed under President Clinton in the late 1990s, and neither Republican nor Democratic leaders pushed it — even as President George W. Bush plunged the country back into the red.
Republicans have raised the issue again now that President Obama is in office, and has overseen a third straight year of trillion-dollar deficits.
After an intense internal debate, House Republicans decided to bring to the floor a "clean" balanced budget constitutional amendment that is similar to the version that almost passed in the 1990s, rather than a stricter version, which many conservatives prefer, that would have written tighter spending limits into the Constitution and required a higher threshold for breaching the caps.
That decision likely will cost the support of some Republicans, but Mr. Peterson said increasing the threshold would have been a step backward for the bipartisan coalition. He told Republicans early on that using the same structure as the 1995 version was critical.
All told, 11 Democrats who voted for the 1995 version are still in the chamber, but other than Mr. Peterson and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, it was unclear whether the others would still vote for it.
"There are many Democrats still here serving that actually voted for this version. So obviously it would be interesting to see how those members, like Jim Clyburn and Steny Hoyer and others, will vote this week on this version and whether there is a true commitment to moving towards a balanced-budget amendment," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
Some Democrats say the events of the intervening years have changed their minds.
"I have learned and seen what the country has learned and seen. Since 1995, we saw that balancing the budget doesn't require a constitutional amendment," said Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey. "In the late '90s, we balanced the budget with a set of reasonable and fair judgments."
He said budget challenges brought by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 make it tougher to accept "arbitrary restraints on our decision-making process."
Five other lawmakers didn't return repeated messages this week asking how they would vote. Among them were Mr. Clyburn, a member of the Democratic leadership, and Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat.
Democrats aren't the only ones rethinking the amendment.
The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group, endorsed the amendment in the 1990s, but not this time.
"I get a little bit frustrated with the whole balanced-budget amendment debate," said Robert Bixby, the group's executive director. "I just think the situation requires immediate attention to policy changes that would actually reduce the deficit rather than spending the next years debating amending the Constitution."
During the earlier debate, one of the more vociferous lawmakers supporting the amendment was Mr. Biden, then a senator from Delaware.
He argued in a lengthy floor speech that the only way to preserve Democratic priorities was to balance the budget and stave off a crisis.
"We must send the balanced-budget amendment to the states — to the people of the United States — for their approval," he said. "It is my belief that only when we have asserted control over our budget once again will we be able to conduct a meaningful debate on our real national priorities. Until then, the short-term, bottom-line calculations will continue to drive the budget process."
Mr. Biden's spokeswoman on Wednesday declined to comment. But the White House weighed in Tuesday by issuing a scathing attack on the proposed amendment and saying that limiting spending now could trigger "a second Great Depression."
Voting for the balanced budget amendment wasn't a good career move for House Democrats in 1995. Of the 72 who did, just 11 are still in the House. But nearly half of the 129 who voted against it are still in the chamber.
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