WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives, faced with growing outrage over a federal deficit now pushing $350 billion, yesterday narrowly rejected a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
On a vote of 280 to 153, the House fell 10 votes short of mustering the two-thirds majority required to add such an amendment to the country's 203-year-old charter.
In recent days the Democratic leadership and campaigned hard against the measure, which they believed would cause irreparable harm to both the Constitution and the country's political and economic makeup.
In an emotional last-minute appeal yesterday, House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., called on members to "spare the Constitution and instead summon the courage" to be more responsible on the budget in the future.
Despite the vocal opposition of their party's leaders, one Democrat after another joined Republicans and President Bush in supporting the extraordinary move to amend the Constitution.
Many cited Congress's inability to curb its own spending excesses, as well as the President's refusal to raise revenues, as the reason for creating such an overriding legal and moral mandate to erase the deficit.
"Without some constitutional enforcement of a balanced budget, I am convinced we will never get there. We will always find some excuse -- some worthy program to fund, some national emergency to address -- to avoid gut-wrenching decisions," said Rep. Doug Barnard, D-Ga.
"We have tried hit-and-miss solutions during the past eight years -- Gramm-Rudman I, Gramm-Rudman II, budget summits with the White House -- all examples of failed efforts," he said.
"The system seems to protect everyone's interests and postpone the day of reckoning -- a vicious cycle which spirals the deficit upwards," he said.
Supporters and opponents alike said the amendment itself would not solve the deficit problem, and that the real remedies -- spending cuts and tax increases -- will be painful and difficult to enact.
"People have not balanced the budget because they have not had the guts to make decisions about whether or not we control healthcare costs, deal with the growth in retirement programs and farm price supports, limit tax deductions, or increase tax rates," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, D-Calif.
"Those are the choices. There is no easy waste-fraud-and-abuse gimmick we can use," he said.
Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., author of the House amendment, concurred that "there is no magic pill" and said Congress should get busy right after passage of the amendment with drafting a new agreement to eliminate the deficit.
With the measure's setback in the House, Senate plans to take up the amendment later this month now appear to be in doubt. Passage would require two-thirds approval from that chamber, as well as ratification by 39 state legislatures, to become part of the Constitution.
Voters understand, Rep. Stenholm asserted, that "deficits are hurting them far more than any hypothetical budget cuts," and that is why the public overwhelmingly supports the amendment. It will "give us a constitutional reason to make the tough choices," he said.
Just before the historic House vote, presidential prospect Ross Perot came out against the constitutional amendment on NBC's Today Show. The Texas billionaire, now leading in many polls because of public dissatisfaction with Washington's handling of the deficit and other issues, said Congress and the President should not need such a prod to get control over spending.
For his part, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker faulted the measure in a letter to the Senate Budget Committee late last week. he questioned whether the Supreme Court, as litigation proliferated under the amendment, might become the "arbiter of economic and political decision-making."
Mr. Volcker also argued that "accounting standards, after all, change over time" and should not be enshrined in the Constitution. An absolute requirement for budgetary balance could lead to "arbitrary cuts in spending and increased taxes, regardless of economic circumstances, programmatic needs, or fixed commitments," like interest on the debt, he said.
"I would feel much better about a balanced budget amendment" if Congress started this year to put the deficit on a five-year path toward zero, he said. But, then, if it did so, he said, "we wouldn't need the amendment."