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Senate to Debate Constitutional Amendment

The Senate is poised to debate and vote on whether or not the U.S. Constitution should require America to maintain a balanced federal budget. The law enacted in August to end the summer stand-off over raising America’s debt ceiling included a provision ensuring a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) in both Chambers of Congress by the end of the year. With legislators hoping to wrap up necessary business (particularly the continued funding of the federal government) by next Friday, the time has come for a vote. 

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated that time for the BBA debate will be relatively brief, both Republicans and Democrats are preparing to argue their positions. It is likely that two versions of this constitutional amendment will be debated. 

Senate Joint Resolution 23, introduced by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and similar to a bill crafted earlier by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Mike Lee (R-UT), has attracted broad Republican support. Notably, this BBA would require an often challenging two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate not only to allow budget outlays to be more than receipts, but also to allow spending to exceed 18 percent of the nation’s GDP and to raise taxes. In addition, it would require a three-fifths vote to raise the debt ceiling. 

Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) has authored an alternative BBA, Senate Joint Resolution 24, which has attracted the support of five of his Democrat colleagues thus far. This version would shelter Social Security from the requirements of a balanced budget, and it would prohibit enactment of income tax breaks for millionaires unless there is a budget surplus even with such breaks. 

As in the failed House vote in November, it is expected that these Senate votes will split on partisan lines. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber and then must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. 

  • Watch this recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on a Balanced Budget Amendment.