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But that agreement did not stipulate which BBA would be voted on in the House or Senate. If one body passes an amendment with the requisite two-thirds, then the other body must vote on the same wording. Otherwise, the House might vote on one amendment and the Senate a different one.
There is a growing agreement among conservatives that the best vehicle for both chambers is what is known as the “Senate consensus amendment” because every single Republican senator, from Maine to Alaska, has cosponsored this amendment. Now, anything with the words “Senate” and “consensus” in the title usually shouts, “lowest common denominator” and “not worth the candle.” But the earth’s axis has shifted. The Senate Republican “consensus” is the toughest of all the amendments being considered. It requires a three-fifths vote to borrow money, a two-thirds vote to increase taxes, limits total federal spending to 18 percent of GDP (we are now at 25 percent), and forbids the federal courts from using the amendment to force tax hikes to balance the budget.
The robust “consensus” amendment is sponsored by every single Republican in the Senate, with chief sponsors being Utah senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch and Kentucky senator Rand Paul. In the House the robust amendment is cosponsored by Illinois congressman Joe Walsh and Virginia’s Robert Goodlatte.
The main alternative is the weak amendment that requires a BBA without any limit on spending or the taxing power of Congress. There are two other ideas that have great appeal but are not viewed as options this go-around. Michigan congressman Justin Amash’s amendment limits federal spending to the average of the last three years’ spending. California congressman Tom McClintock’s amendment would simply forbid Congress from borrowing money.
For an amendment to win two-thirds of the House and Senate—if it is to pass this Congress—it must garner the votes of all 242 House Republicans and all 47 Republican senators, plus 48 Democratic congressmen and 20 Democratic senators. Neither amendment could possibly pass that test. But after the 2012 election and after the 2014 election the odds shift.
THE EMERGING consensus strategy is to put forward the robust amendment with spending and tax limitations already endorsed by 47 senators and now cosponsored by 133 House members. It would receive House Republican votes. Few Democrats could vote for such a strong amendment. All those voting against the “balanced budget” amendment because it limited spending and/or makes tax hikes too difficult would be targets for defeat in 2012. Democrats have 23 Senate seats up in 2012 and 20 up in 2014. Republicans could add to their 47 Senate votes all those they replaced in 2012 and all those they scare with scalps taken in 2012.
Ditto the House drive to get to the magic number of 290.
The key negotiation strategy is developing as follows: Republicans will refuse to change the robust language. They will offer to negotiate with any Democratic amendment that is brought to the table by 20 Senate Democratic cosponsors and 49 House Democratic cosponsors. No watering down the robust amendment in the hope of winning five or 10 or “many” Democrats.
Everyone remembers the game Democrats have played with the BBA in the past, allowing those up for reelection to vote yes, while those like Montana senator Max Baucus—who won election promising to vote for a BBA—vote no when not in cycle. (They play the same musical chairs game in defeating repeal of the death tax.)
Those Republicans who actually expect to pass the amendment this year argue for the watered-down version that would maximize Democratic votes. That, of course, would minimize the number of Democrats who could be defeated in 2012 using the BBA issue and collapse Democratic support in 2013 and beyond.
The drive for a Balanced Budget Amendment remains the quest for the Holy Grail for limited government advocates. But as the penultimate scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reminds us, there is all the difference in the world between grasping the correct Grail and grabbing the wrong one.
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