Anxious Dems want party leaders to embrace balanced-budget measure

Democrats in Congress are urging their party leaders to get behind a balanced-budget amendment (BBA), fearing that Republicans will use the issue as a political weapon in 2012. 

President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have spoken out against the need for such a measure, but rank-and-file members claim they are falling into a GOP trap. 

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Instead of speaking out against balancing the budget, Obama and the Democratic leadership should embrace a centrist BBA measure, some Democrats say.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who introduced a proposal that gained support within the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, said he expects Republicans to use the BBA against Democrats on the campaign trail.

“Well, certainly if I was [the GOP], I would use this as a way of going after Democrats,” Cuellar said in an interview with The Hill. “And this is why the more centrist Blue Dogs have come out and done this.”

Cuellar is a low-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership team.

The general idea of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget is popular. A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in late July showed 74 percent of respondents favored a BBA, and 60 percent believed it was necessary to “get the federal budget under control.”

Cuellar noted that the No. 1 issue right now is the economy. But the nation’s record deficit is also high on voters’ minds. 

“[The GOP could] use the balanced-budget [vote] as saying, ‘Hey, [the Democrats] don’t want to balance the budget; they voted against a balanced-budget amendment.’ And that could become an issue,” Cuellar said.

Another Democratic supporter of a BBA, Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), agreed that the legislation is popular, pointing out that he hears about it from voters in his district.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who introduced his own version of a BBA, said, “I see an incredibly volatile election coming up and nobody can call how that is going [to turn out] — but people are angry and they don’t feel the government is responding to their needs. People’s number one priority is putting America back to work. Their number two priority is putting our fiscal house in order.”

DeFazio said he has talked with the leadership and members of his caucus, but declined to provide details about the ongoing discussions, only saying: “Some are for it. Some are against it. Some are undecided.”

Republicans running for the White House, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain, have repeatedly cited the need to balance the budget through a constitutional amendment. 

Obama does not see the need for a BBA. 

This summer, he told reporters, “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.”

Democratic leaders in Congress have criticized GOP-crafted BBA measures, but have not backed their own alternative. 

In the Senate, a handful of Democrats facing tough elections next year have co-sponsored Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) bill, including Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership aide in the House and Senate, said his party will seize on how Democratic leaders have opted not to back a BBA: “Republicans will point out that the Democrats by and large do not support the government balancing its budget at a time of record deficit spending. One of the quickest ways to do that is through a balanced-budget amendment. And although a minority of Democrats may support it, the fact that the Democratic Conference doesn’t provides a ripe target.”

Congress later this year will vote on a BBA, as stipulated by the debt-ceiling agreement that was struck before the August recess. It is unclear which version of the BBA will hit the House and Senate floors. 

In recent interviews, former President Clinton has noted that he and a GOP-led Congress balanced the budget. In 1997, Clinton signed into law a sweeping Balanced Budget Act. That measure did not include a balanced-budget amendment, however,

The National Republican Congressional Committee has already begun running television ads against politically vulnerable Democrats on a BBA. 

A Democratic aide familiar with BBA discussions said it is obvious the GOP will try to use the issue to nationalize House races in 2012. The aide pointed out that many in the Blue Dog Coalition weathered a tough election year in 2010.

“The Republicans are going to try to nationalize this, because they know these candidates won in a really bad year … their constituents like them. And that’s the only hope [the GOP has],” said the aide, who supports the Blue Dogs’ BBA. 

GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) has sponsored the two most popular versions of the BBA in the House. On top of requiring a balanced budget, his more-conservative version requires a supermajority vote to raise the debt limit or to raise taxes, and caps spending at 18 percent of GDP. It has 133 co-sponsors. A less-conservative version attracted 242 co-sponsors, including 15 Democrats.

A senior Democratic aide noted that the GOP’s proposals have “no chance” of getting a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate and would lead to more fiscal uncertainty. 

Cuellar’s bill, which is co-sponsored by 18 Democrats, is similar to one voted on in 1995 that fell a single vote short of passage in the Senate. It has a clause that would ensure Social Security benefits not be cut. Cuellar said it is centrist enough for the administration’s support.

“I mean, I think this is something President Obama can support. If President Clinton did that in the 1990s, then Obama can do it in 2011,” Cuellar said, adding that he has not talked with the White House about his proposal.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a former leader of the Blue Dog Coalition who is mulling a Senate bid, said Democratic Party leaders haven’t commented much about the Blue Dogs’ BBA version.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Matheson said. “I think it is the right policy, so of course they should [support it].”