House Republicans may tie balanced budget to raising the nation’s debt limit

House Republican leaders are considering holding a vote on a constitutional balanced-budget amendment in tandem with an impending vote to increase the debt limit.

Leadership sources familiar with the GOP’s strategy told The Hill that calling up a balanced-budget amendment on the floor for consideration is under discussion — as are many other ideas.

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Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Boehner has been clear that reforms need to be implemented along with spending cuts if the White House wants Republicans to vote for an increase to the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

“That means cutting spending and implementing spending reforms to keep cutting. The details of those reforms will be discussed by members in the weeks ahead,” Steel said.

GOP Reps. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) and Lee Terry (Neb.) have introduced different versions of measures that would require a constitutionally mandated balanced budget, and the effort is picking up momentum. 

Last weekend, members at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore brainstormed ways in which they can leverage their votes on an increase to the debt ceiling.

Terry said, “I think tying a balanced-budget amendment into an increase in the debt ceiling is going to happen. I really do.”

Goodlatte said he hasn’t talked to the leadership yet about the timing of tying the debt limit to a balanced-budget amendment.

Both Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have previously co-sponsored Goodlatte’s measure, which is similar to the balanced-budget amendment in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) “Contract With America.”

A balanced-budget amendment was not included in the House GOP’s “Pledge to America” last year.

Adding a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution requires two-thirds support from the House and Senate, as well as three-fourths of the state legislatures. Raising the debt ceiling requires only a majority vote.

Getting the White House to back such a measure would be key to its success, though it would be politically risky. Republicans could seek its inclusion in a debt-limit deal and later watch the amendment fail in the Senate or at the state level. 

Goodlatte, who led the effort to read the Constitution on the House floor earlier this month, has already signed on 160 co-sponsors, including one House Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah).

The Virginia Republican acknowledges it would be challenging to get an amendment through Congress and the states, but maintains that it has a much better chance now, given the national mood about the country’s record deficit. 

Ready to aid Goodlatte's effort is the new class of Republican freshmen, though a few of them have indicated they will vote no on any debt-limit measure.

“You have a host of new Republican freshmen who were sent here with a mandate for a balanced budget," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of the co-sponsors of Goodlatte's measure. "When I was sent here, it was with a mandate for a balanced budget. So I think it's time we act on that."

Chaffetz, who might mount a primary challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2012, said, "If [raising the debt ceiling] is not tied to dramatic reductions in spending and the eventuality of balancing the budget, we probably shouldn't do it.”

The key for Republicans is to use their leverage with the White House to secure an attractive deal to present their GOP conference.

Cantor has said the debt limit will be lifted, though the onus is usually on the majority party to secure the votes. In December of 2009, the House Democratic majority raised the debt limit by a 218-214 margin. Not one Republican backed it, while 39 Democrats voted no. In the Senate, the roll call was 60-39, with only one Democrat voting no (Sen. Evan Bayh, Ind.).

Still, Republicans might force the White House to find votes on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Austan Goolsbee, President Obama’s top economic adviser, said this month that not raising the debt limit could be “catastrophic.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently discussed tying a balanced-budget rule to any agreement by Republicans to raise the debt ceiling.

“I can't imagine voting to raise the debt ceiling unless we're going to change our ways in Washington," Paul said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I am proposing that we link to raising the debt ceiling — that we link a balanced-budget rule, an ironclad rule that they can't evade.”

“I have a very similar feeling," said Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.), the Tea Party-backed Republican who defeated Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in November. "I need to see some real benchmarks."

Gosar noted he heard plenty of talk on the campaign trail from voters eager for a balanced-budget amendment.

"It's a very popular idea simply because people don't trust politicians to do the things they say they're going to do," said Mark Meckler, head of the group Tea Party Patriots. "So they're looking for something to tie their hands."

Meckler said a push forward on a balanced-budget amendment would thrill most Tea Party activists.

Another freshman on board with the idea is Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who defeated Democrat Glenn Nye in November. 

While talk of the economy and the deficit was ubiquitous on the campaign trail, Rigell said there wasn't a single town-hall meeting in which voters didn't specifically call for a balanced-budget amendment.

"To say that the fiscal path we're on right now is unsustainable understates the gravity of what we're facing," said Rigell. "As we move forward, I think there will increasingly be a linkage between Republican willingness to sign on to a debt increase and substantive efforts to reduce the deficit. Ideally, this very bill."

Goodlatte said even though it's "too early to be telegraphing our demands," the linkage of a balanced-budget amendment to the debt-ceiling measure "could certainly go a long way in assuring members that Congress is truly serious about addressing the deficit."

Key outside fiscal conservative groups and think tanks including Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Heritage Foundation have helped in the drafting of some of the variations of the balanced-budget amendment measures.

ATR President Grover Norquist, who was involved in the 1995 balanced-budget amendment effort, cautioned members to write an amendment in such a way that would make it very difficult to raise taxes.

Soon before the balanced-budget amendment vote 15 years ago, Norquist said that more than two dozen GOP freshmen told Gingrich they wouldn’t support it unless they could have a vote that would require two-thirds of the Congress to raise taxes.

He added, “When it came to having the vote, 25 freshmen said, ‘We don’t want to vote for it, because if you pass a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced budget, then a judge might raise taxes,’ or the Democrats would come in and say, ‘There’s a $100 billion deficit and you have to balance it, but we’re not cutting spending, so what do you want to do?’ ”