Republicans turn their attention to the balanced budget amendment.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 28 2011 7:35 PM

Knocked Off Balance

How John Boehner is using one doomed piece of legislation to try and save another.

John Boehner. Click to expandi image.
John Boehner 

Update, July 29, 12:10 p.m.: It may just be a PR victory, but the conservatives appear to have won. The new version of the Boehner plan makes the balanced budget amendment even more important. Under the latest version, a second vote on raising the debt ceiling will be conditioned on the passage—in both houses—of the amendment. (The earlier bill required only that the amendment be voted on.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Rep. Mike Pence emerged Thursday from the GOP's morning conference a changed man. Once, he had led the Republican Study Committee that was now causing so much grief and bellows and threats because of its role in the debt fight. Once, he was a potential presidential candidate that the Tea Party actually liked. Now he was changing his vote. He would support, maybe, the Boehner plan, because Boehner was going to give him something in return. And what was that something, exactly?

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"Since the 'clean' balanced budget amendment was added to the schedule tomorrow, I announced my support of the Boehner plan," said Pence, his jacket slung over his shoulder.

Hang on: What's a "clean" balanced budget amendment? "It's the historic balanced budget amendment that passed both houses of Congress 15 years ago," Pence explained. That was the version of the amendment that had no caps on how much Congress was allowed to spend, no new rule that required two-thirds of Congress to approve new tax cuts. "That's the one that has an opportunity to get 290 votes, to pass by the sufficient two-thirds majority. We can make a good faith effort to pass the version that has a fighting chance."

It sounds great, although as of this writing it's unclear whether it was enough to save the Boehner plan. (Here's the latest on that story.) When Republicans rewrote the balanced budget amendment for their "Cut, Cap, and Balance" bill, they made it totally unpalatable to Democrats. Even Rep. Paul Ryan would eventually admit that. "I just never thought that was realistic," he said Wednesday, "to demand Democrats vote against their consciences."

The "clean" balanced budget amendment, though—that was another story. (Among GOP aides, the amendment is alternately called "clean" or "classic.") It could get every Republican vote. It would need 49 Democratic votes to hit that two-thirds ceiling. In 1995, 72 Democrats voted for the classic amendment. There's even a "clean" balanced budget amendment introduced by a Blue Dog Democrat and co-sponsored by 24 of his peers. This is doable.

Just kidding! It turns out that pushing through a vote to amend the Constitution in 24 hours, as a sweetener to pass a bill that Democrats hate, may not be the best way to make this happen. Some of the Democrats I talked to on Thursday—I focused on the ones from somewhat conservative districts—were elusive, surprised to hear that this was the GOP's new, new plan, and unready to take a stance. The more liberal Democrats were just blowing it off.

"It may be a way for some of the right wing to get some comfort because they have to vote for reality," shrugged Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

One of the obvious problems, if you dig into the old BBA votes, is that the Democrats who used to back it are either retired, defeated, or lobbying for a living. The list of names on the old BBA roll calls are pocket histories of how the South moved from Dixiecrat to bright-red Republican. Republican-turned-Democrat Nathan Deal! Barely-remembered former Sen. Blanche Lincoln! The one name that stands out is Steny Hoyer, now the party's whip. Republicans love to needle him for his old vote, but he's already recanted it.

"As someone who supported the 1995 balanced budget amendment," Hoyer said to reporters last week, "let me say that at this point in time I would not support it. Let me tell you why I wouldn't. I really believed that if the country were in tough shape in 1995, we could get a three-fifths vote. I don't believe that today. I don't have any confidence that even at a time of great challenge, that there aren't 40 percent-plus in one House that would oppose doing something necessary to assure the country was on a sound footing."

That's one reason why this isn't going to work. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., provided another one. He supported the "classic" BBA, full-stop, and he was trying to get members to support it.

"I'm talking to people," he said. "Unfortunately, this is such a polarized time. As opposed to looking at it as something good in the long term, for the fiscal health of the country, some people are looking at it as a sort of Republican victory. I'm just trying to get them past that. I say, 'Look: What about the Bush years? If we had this, he couldn't have had the tax cuts for the wealthy. We couldn't have had the unfunded wars.' That stops them short."

It probably won't stop enough of them short. The bad faith is tough to keep track of, but it's like this: Most Republicans want the Boehner debt plan to succeed, so they're willing to compromise a little on the balanced budget amendment. Democrats want the Boehner plan to fail, so that they get to vote on their plan instead, so they won't take the compromise. Boehner traded away nothing—a defeated BBA—for another kind of nothing, in the form of a BBA that helps him pass his debt plan in the House.

That's the cruel way of putting it. It's not like Boehner is getting snowed; he's promising to "take the fight" on the balanced budget amendment to voters, who generally love it. In their press conferences this week, his leadership team started dropping references to it. On Wednesday, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers told reporters that Thomas Jefferson would have supported the amendment. That might be true. The Founders were more cynical than we want to give them credit for.

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