House Republicans face fork in the road on balanced-budget amendment

With an eye on the 2012 elections, the House Republican leadership is debating whether to embrace one of two strikingly different strategies on a balanced-budget amendment (BBA). 

Some Republicans believe a policy win is achievable, claiming a version of the legislation could pass the lower chamber. This version of the bill does not cap spending relative to the size of the economy and does not require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. 

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One leadership aide said that voting on such a bill could allow the GOP on the campaign trail to argue that Democrats are so unreasonable and such big spenders that they would not even vote for a simple BBA.

Voting on the more conservative version, on the other hand, could allow Democrats to blast Republicans for embracing an “extreme” measure that sets low spending caps. 

There is almost no chance that a BBA will be signed into law during the 112th Congress, so electoral politics are a major consideration. Both chambers must pass the amendment by a two-thirds majority and it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. 

Should leadership try a more centrist approach in an attempt to attract Democratic support, conservatives could cry foul.

Many on the right argue that firing up the conservative base is the way to go. This group includes members who are worried that a BBA without the cap would lead to big tax increases by future Congresses. 

Republican presidential candidates have been touting the need for a BBA, which Obama has said is unnecessary.

This summer, Obama said, “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do our jobs. The Constitution already tells us to do our jobs — and to make sure that the government is living within its means and making responsible choices.”

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the lead sponsor of both lead versions of the BBA, has been racing against the clock and said Wednesday he is working with conservative Democrats to recruit more liberal supporters. 

Goodlatte believes he has a good shot of House passage. 

But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wants a vote on the BBA in early November and time is running short, especially in a partisan body where it’s tough just to get 218 votes, much less the 290 needed to pass a BBA. 

H.J. Res 2, sponsored by Goodlatte, is identical to a bill that narrowly failed to pass Congress in the 1990s. In addition to requiring spending to equal revenue, the bill requires supermajority votes to raise the debt ceiling, but it excludes from outlays interest on the national debt. 

Eighteen conservative Democrats have co-sponsored their own “Blue Dog” BBA, which does not have the debt-ceiling provision and would exempt Social Security from the balancing requirement. Otherwise, it resembles Goodlatte’s more centrist measure.

“We have been working with a group of Democrats and they are building support,” Goodlatte said. 

A Democratic aide confirmed that Blue Dogs have held meetings with Goodlatte.

Goodlatte said a decision is not close on which BBA will be voted on. During a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) pressed Goodlatte on which bill will hit the floor. The Virginia Republican responded that leadership will make that decision. 

Goodlatte noted to The Hill on Wednesday that in addition to the 15 Democrats co-sponsoring H.J. Res. 2, others have come forward in recent weeks to give private assurances of support. The measure now has 242 co-sponsors.

He said those Republicans opposed to this version should realize it is better than not having a constitutional amendment at all. 

“This is the same version that most states have. Our members should not be afraid of having that debate on how to balance the budget, if the alternative is not having a balanced-budget amendment and passing down enormous debt to our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Conservative freshman Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) told The Hill he wants the more conservative version, but that he thinks the “clean” version makes the most sense politically. 

Griffith said leadership is working hard to promote the BBA, adding that it is getting a lot of attention in his Virginia district, which borders Goodlatte’s.

The more conservative Goodlatte bill with the anti-tax provisions was crafted in consultation with Tea Party freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.). The conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) is still mulling whether to push that version or to go with the “vanilla” Goodlatte version — which most of them have co-sponsored anyway, an RSC aide said. 

Walsh’s office said it is “premature” to say which version he is pushing.

Tea Party freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said he can live without the supermajority tax increase requirement, though claimed he needs the amendment to include a cap on spending relative to gross domestic product.

“Otherwise this will lead to big tax increases,” he warned.

Other ideas could come from a BBA introduced by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) with 41 co-sponsors. That bill, supported by the Club for Growth, would limit spending to the average taxes collected during the previous three years.

Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union said his group wants the strongest version that can be passed.

He said that with only a few weeks left before a vote, passage in the Senate is looking doubtful, so a big part of the decisionmaking is how to use the vote to build support for another vote down the road.

“I think everyone realizes that it is going to be tough to pass both chambers in that time period,” he said. “If the House does pass it and it fails narrowly in the Senate, it could help a repeat effort when the composition of Congress changes.”