The House of Representatives voted down a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution on Friday, failing to revive a long-held and perpetually elusive goal for the GOP.
The vote came 16 years after an amendment failed to pass Congress by just one vote in the Senate, but the intervening years have put the amendment even farther out of reach.
In a 261-165 vote, the measure fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. The White House has said it opposes the amendment. The Senate, which is required to vote on it as part of the August debt deal, is not expected to pass it.
The bipartisan cooperation needed to round up a two-thirds vote on any fiscal measure seems something of a pipe dream in today's political climate. The divided Congress has locked horns all year on the best way to reduce the deficit and revive the sluggish economy.
A so-called super committee charged with reducing the deficit appears deadlock. Friday's vote indicated few signs of hope.
Republicans watched several Democrats turn away from the amendment -- even those who have voted for it in the past.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted that when he voted for the amendment in 1995, he had some confidence that Congress could come together to vote for spending increases in an emergency as allowed.
"Regrettably over the 16 years, I've lost that confidence," Hoyer said.
The amendment was essentially identical to the one voted on in 1995. It would have required the government to balance its books within two years of ratification, but no sooner than 2017.
A three-fifths vote of each chamber would be required before Congress could add to the debt or raise taxes. The president would be required to submit a balanced budget and the restrictions could be waived in wartime.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the amendment's sponsor, said the measure would take the country off the path that's led to a $15-trillion debt and force Congress to do the right thing.
"We need the discipline that a balance budget amendment provides," Goodlatte said.
While Republicans wholly embraced the amendment and its ambitious goals, few have actually lined up behind specific policies that would make it happen in short order. The budget the House approved this year, which included the major changes to Medicare that Democrats called extreme, still would not have yielded a budget surplus until 2040, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Eliminating the yearly deficit – now roughly $1.3 trillion -- would require such drastic and painful cuts that some conservatives are convinced it would lead to tax increases. Those advocates and lawmakers pushed Republican leaders to propose an amendment that also included a strict spending cap and mandated a larger majority vote before Congress could raise new revenue.
But Republican leaders chose instead to propose the 1995 version of the amendment, with hopes of wooing fiscally conservative Democrats with a record of support. But the numbers were working against them. Even with significant support of conservative Democrats – the so-called Blue Dogs – the measure went down. Four Republicans voted against the amendment, while 25 Democrats voted for it.