By Russell Berman - 11/15/11 01:36 AM EST
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Monday that he would have preferred a “stronger” balanced-budget amendment but will support the version House Republicans are bringing to the floor this week.
After weeks of surveying their members, GOP leaders decided to vote on a “clean” balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, rather than a version that would cap federal spending or require a supermajority in Congress to raise taxes.
“Personally, if I had my druthers, I would have liked to see us vote on the stronger [amendment], so I hope that this passes, and I will be voting for it, because I do think ultimately the biggest check we can put on the government’s unbridled spending is a forced balanced-budget amendment like most states have,” Cantor told reporters.
The majority leader said leaders of the balanced-budget effort held a “member-driven process” and noted that Republican lawmakers “overwhelmingly” wanted to vote on the clean version.
The GOP conference is facing pressure from conservative activists to hold a vote on the other balanced-budget amendment. A coalition of 60 groups, including the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticizing the clean balanced-budget amendment and urging a vote on a version with a tax provision.
“Any lawmaker committed to restoring American solvency cannot seriously vote for a BBA that does not include a supermajority requirement for tax increases,” the letter said.
Asked if Boehner also preferred to vote on a stronger version, his spokesman, Michael Steel, said: “The Speaker has long supported both versions of the balanced-budget amendment.”
After a push from Boehner and Cantor, House and Senate leaders required a vote on a balanced-budget amendment in the August legislation that authorized an increase in the debt ceiling. The House is expected to vote on a clean version of the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), by the end of the week.
Republicans have struggled to reach a consensus on the balanced-budget vote, as party leaders weighed the benefits of taking up the most conservative measure against a version that stood a greater chance of passing.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority whip, led a working group of members on the amendment, but leaders ultimately decided to take a formal survey of the entire conference. The outcome, according to several members, was decisively in favor of the clean version.
“The American people overwhelmingly support a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, and our members chose to bring this bill to the floor because it has the best chance of passage,” McCarthy spokeswoman Erica Elliott said. “We’ll see if the Democrats support the will of their constituents.”
Elliot noted that a similar version in 1995 earned 300 House votes and fell just one vote short in the Senate. The measure needs 290 votes to pass; it currently has 240 co-sponsors.
The Senate vote is expected to occur after Thanksgiving.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. While a clean balanced-budget amendment won 300 House votes in 1995, opposition from Democrats could doom this year’s push.
The No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), has already said he would oppose a balanced-budget amendment now even though he supported it in 1995. He has questioned whether the Republican Party of today would be flexible enough to waive the balanced-budget requirement in an emergency.
Cantor put the onus on Democrats, singling out Hoyer and Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat.
“I think part of what is driving our members toward this version is the fact that there are many Democrats still here serving that actually voted for this version,” Cantor said. “So obviously it will be interesting to see how those members, like Jim Clyburn and Steny Hoyer and others, will vote this week on this version, and whether there is a true commitment to moving towards balance in our budget.”
The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), sent a “Dear Colleague” letter Monday urging a “no” vote, arguing a balanced-budget amendment with no enforcement mechanism could ultimately throw budgeting decisions to the courts instead of Congress.
While Democrats plan to whip their members against the measure, the more conservative Blue Dog Coalition has yet to decide how its members will vote. The Blue Dogs will meet Tuesday night to discuss the issue. The coalition has historically supported a balanced-budget amendment, and 13 members are co-sponsors of Goodlatte’s measure.
“My expectation is that they will support it,” despite objections from leadership, one aide close to the Blue Dogs said Monday.
Another open question is whether GOP leaders will secure the votes of conservatives who wanted the stronger version brought to the floor. Aides said they expect most to vote in favor, and an aide to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he planned to vote yes.
This story was originally posted at 2:51 p.m. and updated at 8:36 p.m.