House GOP fractured over strategy for balanced budget amendment vote

House Republican leaders are torn between principle and political pragmatism on a pending balanced budget amendment vote.

The GOP conference convened for a special meeting on Friday morning to discuss whether they wanted to pressure vulnerable Democrats — who had supported a balanced budget or campaigned on the issue in the past — or pursue a hard-line conservative stance on the floor.

The House is likely to vote on one of two balanced budget amendments authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) when it reconvenes the week of Nov 14.

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Leaders convened the closed-door conference with rank-and-file GOP lawmakers to consider their strategy for moving a balanced budget amendment. Goodlatte and former Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) led the discussion.

Goodlatte spoke in favor of H.J. Res 2, the so-called “clean” version of the options that mirrors a balanced budget amendment passed by the House in 1995 with Democratic support. It would not require a supermajority of lawmakers to support any tax increases, nor would it impose a spending cap.

Pence argued for H.J. Res 1, which would require a two-thirds majority of members to raise taxes, and would cap federal spending at 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Lawmakers who attended the hour-long special conference meeting called it “scholarly” and “vigorous.”

Several months ago, Republicans won a concession from Democrats to hold a vote on a balanced budget amendment in the House and Senate in the negotiations to raise the debt limit.

Under the terms of the debt deal, congressional leaders have until Dec. 31 to vote on a balanced budget measure.

GOP leaders tapped Pence and Goodlatte to sound out GOP and Democratic lawmakers on the balanced budget amendment over the past few months. 

Pence told The Hill, “I’m convinced that the best course of action is to bring a balanced budget amendment with strong spending limits and taxpayer protections.”

The Indiana gubernatorial contender told The Hill that he changed his mind on the approach after “numerous meetings” with Democratic colleagues and GOP members.

“Last summer I thought we ought to bring both versions to the floor.  I am persuaded that the best thing we can do for the cause and the country is … to bring one version to the floor, have a straight up-or-down vote,” Pence said.

Members in the room told The Hill that conservative lawmakers who favor Pence’s approach argued they couldn’t count on Democrats to vote for the clean version.

(Conservative Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) removed his name from the co-sponsor list on Friday afternoon because he supports the strong version of the measure with strict spending caps.)

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who voted for the clean version in 1995, indicated recently that he would oppose a similar version now.

Regardless, centrists believe that Goodlatte’s clean version of the amendment has a better chance of passing. The measure has 241 co-sponsors, including Democrats.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said that his colleagues should support the clean version to box in conservative Democrats.

“It’s got to be clean. If it isn’t the clean version, then we lose the opportunity to pass it. We also give folks on the other side who have campaigned that they would vote for a balanced budget amendment an excuse to go home to say ‘yes, but’ and I don’t think that’s a good political position or policy position for us to be in,” LaTourette said.

More than 30 members spoke during the hour-long session on Friday morning, participants said, noting that toward the end of the meeting lawmakers seemed to be in support of the clean version strategy.

Unlike most conferences, where members engage in a question-and-answer session, the closed-door meeting was designed to present the options, and receive feedback, members said.

The House GOP whip team worked their members during the final series of votes on Friday to get an idea of which version to pursue. Several high-ranking lawmakers told The Hill that the clean version was garnering more support from the rank-and-file.

Republican sources, however, don’t expect it to pass the House.