The Senate has defeated two proposals to amend the Constitution to compel Congress to come up with a balanced budget every year. The votes, coming after House rejection of a balanced budget amendment last month, effectively shuts off the constitutional approach for forcing Congress to live within its means.
With Democrats solidly against the amendments, the outcome was never in doubt. But the Senate was required to stage the votes under last summer's deal for raising the government's debt limit in exchange for $2 trillion in future spending cuts.
The Senate first dispensed with a version offered by Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado with only 21 of 100 senators in support. Lawmakers then voted 53-47 to defeat a more stringent Republican-backed measure sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds majority and must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Passing a balanced budget amendment has been a key goal of Republicans and a minority of Democrats who say it's the only way to make lawmakers take meaningful action to eliminate deficits of $1 trillion a year. But most Democrats say it would put the government in a fiscal straitjacket in which it would be unable to respond to economic cycles and deal with wars and natural disasters.
"I would like nothing more than to have a balanced budget," said Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. But a constitutional amendment as outlined by the Republicans "would only compound economic declines and possibly throw us into a recession or even into a depression."
The House several weeks ago voted 261-165 in favor of a GOP-written balanced budget proposal, 23 votes short of the two-thirds majority.
The Senate came within one vote of approving a balanced budget twice in the 1990s, but it hasn't taken up the issue since the last vote in 1997.
The tougher Hatch proposal, backed by all 47 Senate Republicans, would have required that spending not exceed revenues in any one fiscal year. It would necessitate a two-thirds majority to raise taxes and set a cap on federal spending of 18 percent of gross domestic product.
The budgetary constrictions could be waived by a majority if there is a formal declaration of war; by a three-fifths vote if the country is involved in a military conflict constituting a threat to national security; or if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate approve a deficit.
"The votes we cast today will tell the American people whether we honestly acknowledge the fiscal crisis posed by a $15 trillion national debt and whether we are serious" about finding a cure, Hatch said. "Congress will not kick its overspending addiction alone," he said. "Congress needs some help, and the Constitution is the way to get that help."
The Udall alternative had no spending caps or supermajorities for tax increases. It required that the budget be balanced unless three-fifths of each chamber vote to waive it for national emergencies. It protected Social Security from being raided as a means of balancing the rest of the budget. Tax cuts for people earning more than $1 million a year would not be allowed unless the budget is in surplus.
Udall said the Hatch approach went too far in protecting special interest tax breaks and subjecting critical social programs to cuts. But he agreed that lawmakers needed additional tools to make them more disciplined. "It's appalling to me that Congress is so unable to resist the temptation to spend without limit while also trying to keep taxes as low as possible," he said.
Twenty Democrats and one Republican supported the Udall version. The vote on the Hatch proposal was strictly along party lines.
While the president does not have a role in advancing constitutional amendments, the White House issued statements opposing both proposals. It said that instead of amending the Constitution members of both parties should "move beyond politics as usual and find bipartisan common ground to restore us to a sustainable fiscal path." It also warned that an amendment could also result in the hard decisions lawmakers should be making being handed to the federal courts.
Senate Budget Committee Democrats issued a report saying federal spending hasn't fallen below 18 percent of GDP since 1966 and meeting the GOP-set cap would result in "steep and draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, defense and other priorities."
Including the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, the last time in 1992 with an amendment concerning congressional pay increases.
Forty-nine states -- all but Vermont -- have some form of balanced budget requirement. These generally apply only to operating budgets, allowing states to borrow for long-term capital investments. Cuts to the federal spending resulting from a balanced budget mandate could reduce federal grants to the states, making it harder for them to meet their budget goals.
The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.