Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate defeated two proposed constitutional amendments to require the federal government to balance its budget.
Lawmakers today rejected rival proposals, one by Democrats and a tougher alternative offered by Republicans, with both failing to win even a simple majority. A two-thirds majority is required in both chambers of Congress for passage of constitutional amendments, which then must be adopted by three-fourths of the 50 states to take effect.
The Democratic plan was rejected, 79-21, while the Republican proposal fell, 53-47. One Republican supported the Democratic plan, while no Democrats backed the Republican one.
Most Senate Democrats opposed both proposals, saying the plans would require spending cuts that would be too deep and would make it harder for the government to ease economic recessions with tax cuts or spending increases.
“A vote for this proposal is a vote for dramatic cuts in Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits,” said Senator Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. He called the proposals nothing more than “bumper-sticker politics.”
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who sponsored his party’s plan, said “Congress will not kick its overspending addiction alone, but only if required to do so by the Constitution itself.”
Though the president cannot veto constitutional amendments, the Obama administration issued statements saying it “strongly” opposed both plans.
“We do not need to amend the Constitution for only the 28th time in our nation’s history to do the job of restoring fiscal discipline,” the administration said. Lawmakers instead must “move beyond politics as usual and find bipartisan common ground to restore us to a sustainable fiscal path.”
The votes were required under an agreement reached in August to raise the government’s debt limit. The House defeated a proposed balanced-budget amendment last month.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times, the last time in 1992, though lawmakers have offered more than 11,000 proposals, according to congressional statistics.
Neither plan rejected today would have required that the government always to match spending with revenue. Instead, each stipulated that lawmakers would have to approve any borrowing through three-fifths majorities in both the House and Senate.
The Republican proposal would have also barred spending from exceeding 18 percent of the economy -- last year it was 24 percent -- and required tax increases to be approved by two-thirds votes.
The Democratic plan, by Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, omitted those provisions and would have instead barred income-tax cuts for millionaires that add to the deficit.
Altogether, 67 lawmakers voted for at least one of the two plans. Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, was the sole lawmaker to support both.
The Democrats’ proposal was “thinly veiled cover” designed to protect colleagues in next year’s elections from Republicans charges they oppose requiring the government to balance its budget, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Twelve of the 17 members of the Democratic Senate caucus who are seeking re-election next year or may do so voted for the Udall proposal, including all of those facing what the Washington-based, nonpartisan Cook Political Report gauges as competitive races.
The government has only balanced its budget five times in the past half century, and experts agree see little chance lawmakers will erase the deficit anytime soon. The biggest obstacle is demographics. The retirement of the baby boom generation has begun, with the eldest of this group becoming eligible this year for Medicare, three years after becoming eligible for Social Security.
Those two programs, which already represent one-third of the government’s spending, are projected to grow rapidly in coming years. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle generally agree benefits shouldn’t be cut for current retirees or those approaching retirement because they ought to be given time to adjust to any changes.
The single-toughest deficit reduction measure put to a vote this year in Congress, proposed by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, would have balanced the budget in five years. It received seven votes.
The Democratic amendment is S.J. Res. 24, and the Republican one is S.J. Res. 10.
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