House Republicans are viewing this afternoon’s vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution not just as a mandated part of this summer’s debt-ceiling legislation, but as a moment of far-reaching significance.
“Everybody’s talking about how historic this is,” said one House Republican leadership aide who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sentiments inside the GOP conference. Sixteen years after the House approved a balanced-budget amendment in 1995, “everybody really feels like this is our moment” to pass one through the chamber again.
A look at the House’s previous balanced-budget votes suggests that Friday’s vote could be historic, but for unexpected reasons: It could see the lowest level of support from Democrats in history.
Since 1982, when the Senate became the first chamber to secure the two-thirds support necessary to approve a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, there have been at least five balanced-budget votes in the House.
Each time, no fewer than 87 percent of House Republicans voted “yes” on a balanced budget amendment.
Democratic support has ranged from a low of 29 percent in August 1982 to 43 percent in 1990 and 1992.
This time around, in an effort to secure the support of Democrats, House Republicans two weeks ago opted to bring to the floor a version of the balanced budget amendment that is essentially the same as the one that passed in January 1995 — one that does not require a super-majority in order to raise taxes, a provision that had been a key obstacle to many Democrats’ support.
The move by House Republicans to opt for a less-conservative balanced budget amendment marked a strategic shift from where the party stood over the summer.
In August, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of his own party when he and other House Republican leaders had to scramble to re-work their version of a debt-ceiling bill; conservatives had been unhappy that the original measure did not call for Congress to approve a balanced budget amendment in order to raise the debt ceiling.
Even so, House Democratic leaders are urging members to vote “no” on Friday’s balanced budget amendment — even though it shares the same outline of the measure that many of those same members supported in 1996.
Interestingly, the argument made by members on both sides of the issues centers on the same theme: trust.
In floor remarks Thursday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that while he stands by his 1995 statement in support of the balanced budget amendment, “events in the last sixteen years lead me to oppose today’s balanced budget amendment.”
Under President Clinton, Hoyer argued, four budgets were balanced — and Congress “didn’t need an amendment; we needed the will and the courage.”
He added that he does not now trust the current Republican Party to respond in times of crisis, citing the example of the 2008 TARP legislation, which went down to defeat on the first vote and was approved the second time “with barely three-fifths” of the chamber voting “yes,” including a minority of Republicans.
“I believed in 1995 we could summon those votes because, frankly, we were a much more bipartisan and, in my opinion, responsible body, but I do not have that confidence today, and I am not prepared to take that risk,” he said.
Democrats who oppose the balanced budget amendment have also argued that it would have the effect of devastating domestic programs and would “enshrine” House Republican budget priorities into the Constitution.
Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the reason it’s necessary to approve a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in the first place is because Congress can’t be trusted to spend within its means.
“Congress has shown it cannot balance the budget on its own, and we cannot effectively control future Congresses,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a leader of the Senate’s balanced-budget amendment effort, said Wednesday in a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
In the House in particular, many of the 89 freshman Republicans are eager to vote on a measure that would not just affect the way the current Congress spends money but would leave a legacy for Congresses to come.
“I don’t think the Democrats want to be on the wrong side of this,” said the House Republican leadership aide.
With the support of about 50 House Democrats needed in order for the measure to clear the 290-vote threshold necessary for passage, it’s uncertain whether the balanced budget amendment will clear the chamber on Friday afternoon.
So far, the only Democrats who have come out in support of the measure are the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of about two-dozen conservative Democratic lawmakers.
If only those 25 vote “yes,” that would mean that only 13 percent of the chamber’s 192 Democrats would be voting to support the amendment.
One high-profile Republican, Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (Calif.), on Thursday announced that he will vote “no” on the measure, even though he voted “yes” in 1995.
“What I found … is that we were able to balance the federal budget without touching that inspired document, the U.S. Constitution,” Dreier said on the House floor, according to The Hill.