The House on Friday rejected a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, falling well short of the two-thirds vote required and signaling a striking slide since the amendment's high point in the 1990s.
The failed vote came two days after the Treasury Department announced the federal debt had topped $15 trillion for the first time in history. But Republicans could not win over enough Democrats, who said they don't trust the GOP to consider tax increases as part of a balanced budget solution.
"This vote should not have been about politics. It should have been about what is right for our nation," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who led the floor debate, after the 261-165 vote. That left the amendment more than 20 shy of the 284 votes that would have been needed to clear the lower chamber.
But Friday's tally does show just how much the amendment has slipped down the list of priorities. In 1995, it won 300 votes overall, including support from 72 Democrats. This time, it won just 25 Democrats.
Just as striking, of the 11 Democrats who voted for the 1995 amendment and are still in the House, eight of them voted against it this time, including party leaders Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina.
One Republican, Rep. David Dreier of California, switched from his 1995 vote to now oppose the amendment, too. He said history has shown an amendment isn't needed.
"I believed in 1995 when I cast that vote, January of 1995, in favor of the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, that it was the only way we would be able to achieve a balanced budget. I was wrong. Two short years later, we balanced the federal budget," said Rep. David Dreier, California Republican.
He was joined by three other Republicans who also voted against the amendment Friday.
But other lawmakers said the last 10 years have shown Washington cannot control itself.
"We need limits. We need to be forced to make tough decisions," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who bucked most of his party to back the amendment.
At one point the balanced budget amendment was the most likely to win approval of Congress, be ratified by the states and earn a place as the 28th amendment. In 1995 it passed the House with 300 votes, and a year later came within one vote of passing the Senate, which would have sent it to the states for ratification.
The federal budget has only been in balance for five of the last 50 years, and in three of those years it was only balanced by taking money from government trust funds such as the one that's supposed to be saving for future Social Security beneficiaries.
Friday's amendment would require that annual spending be limited to annual revenue, with the exception of interest payments. It would require a three-fifths vote of each chamber to break the cap. The amendment would also require a three-fifths vote to raise the debt limit.
Under a deal struck this summer, the Senate will vote later this year on its own version of a balanced budget amendment, but that, too, is expected to fail.
Tempers ran high at some points during the House floor debate, including when Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, compared Congress's penchant for spending to a drug addition.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. warned him to be careful with his comparisons.
"My support of spending is not tied to a drug addiction," the Illinois Democrat said — though he stopped short of asking for Mr. Fleming to be reprimanded.
Meanwhile, Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat, said passing a balanced budget is avoiding tough decisions and is "like standing behind my mother's skirt."
"Make some responsible decisions, and you won't need the skirt to stand behind," Mr. Watt said.
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