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House Republicans are hoping this week to duplicate their 1995 achievement of passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and will pressure Democrats who have previously supported one to fall in line.
But the likelihood of passage appears dim. House Democrats have largely opposed the amendment, arguing it would hurt the economy. Additionally, aides say Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) — who voted for the 1995 amendment — is whipping against this one.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), is based on the 1995 amendment and is weaker than a plan that Goodlatte had initially pushed, which would have essentially barred Congress from raising taxes to balance the budget.
Although Goodlatte and other supporters wanted the no-taxes version, they acknowledge the current proposal is their best shot at enactment.
“The only balanced budget amendment that has a chance of garnering the necessary 290 votes in the House to become part of our Constitution is” the historic version, Goodlatte said in a statement last week.
Many GOP Members and conservative activists are frustrated that the Conference went with a version that gives Democrats cover to vote for something that is unlikely to pass the Senate.
“There are a lot of people who prefer the stronger version, both on the policy merits and for the fact that, if the plain version isn’t going to pass [the Senate] … then we’re giving political cover to a lot more Democrats,” a House aide who works for a conservative Member said Friday.
Despite misgivings, conservatives will likely back it. “I expect most of the people who feel that way to still vote for” the measure, the aide said.
A leadership aide said that while some disappointment is understandable, the decision came after lengthy discussions with the Conference.
“There have been discussions behind the scenes for weeks … trying to figure out what strategically was the best option for us,” one aide said.
While it is unclear whether GOP leadership will whip Democrats, Republicans said they will use the days leading up to the midweek vote to pressure conservative and moderate Democrats to back the bill.
Republicans will “highlight previous Democrat support and push Democrats to vote … based on either previous votes they had taken on this or previous campaign pledges or previous public statements,” a leadership aide said.
“You’re going to see a lot of those quotes coming back around to be highlighted to encourage Democrats to support it,” the aide added.
This year’s circumstances are a far cry from 1995. Republicans were in their first year in the majority in decades and made changing the Constitution a key part of their agenda.
For weeks, Republicans pressed the issue, arguing it was a fiscally sound way to curb government excess.
The amendment became a flash point in the fight between Republicans and the Clinton administration, and dozens of Democrats — including Hoyer — ultimately ended up backing it.
According to an aide, Hoyer’s opposition now is based on what he views as a lack of reasonableness among Republicans and his concern that even in an emergency situation, in the event Congress needed to violate the amendment, Republicans would not provide the votes needed under the language to do so.
“As someone who supported the 1995 balanced budget amendment, let me say that at this point in time I would not support it. … I really believed that if the country were in tough shape in 1995, we could get three-fifths vote. I don’t believe that today,” Hoyer said earlier this year.
After House passage in 1995, the amendment died in the Senate and the issue faded.
Over the years, the very idea of a balanced budget amendment has fallen out of favor with many Republicans, who view it as a conservative pipe dream.
That’s why when conservatives in the House first started pushing the idea last spring, it was met with a tepid response.
But with the large GOP freshman class embracing the issue and conservative firebrands such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) pushing it, leadership came around.
“Clearly the balanced budget is important,” a leadership aide said, adding that “leadership recognized it was important after we did the [initial] cut, cap and balance vote.”
That, in turn, prompted Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) to insist the final debt ceiling deal be contingent upon a vote on a balanced budget amendment in both chambers.
Whether the amendment will be enough for conservative activists, however, remains unclear.
In a letter to Boehner sent Wednesday and signed by dozens of conservative groups, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist warned, “Any lawmaker committed to restoring American solvency cannot seriously vote for a BBA that does not include a super-majority requirement for tax increases.”