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House fails to pass Balanced Budget Amendment

The House fell short of the votes necessary to approve a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a largely sybolic exercise on Friday afternoon.

The House voted, 261 to 165, in favor of the amendment, which would prohibit federal spending in any fiscal year from exceeding tax receipts for that year. Bottom line, it would make it impossible for the federal budget to add to the deficit. While a majority of the chamber favored the measure, two-thirds of the House -- 290 members -- is needed to approve an amendment to the Constitution.

All but four Republicans favored the amendment, while Demoocrats split, 25 in favor, and 161 against.

One of the most surprising votes against the amendment was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the fiscally hawkish chairman of the House Budget Committee.

"I’m concerned that this version will lead to a much bigger government fueled by more taxes," Ryan said in a statement. "Spending is the problem, yet this version of the BBA makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow, and economic freedom will be diminished. Without a limit on government spending, I cannot support this Amendment."

Other Republicans joining in the "no" vote were Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), the chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Reps. LOuie Gohmert (R-TX) and Justin Amash (R-MI).

The vote was required as part of the law that created the supercommittee this sumer; its inclusion was mostly a symbolic nod to conservative Republicans in Congress, who had initially rejected packages to defuse the debt ceiling crisis this summer that lacked such an amendment.

Democrats had been somewhat divided over the measure, though party leaders in the House had opposed it. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) actively courted Democratic votes against the amendment, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a member of the supercommittee and ranking member of the House Budget Committee, recently sent a letter to fellow Democrats urging them to vote "No" on the measure.

"A Constitutional amendment that cannot easily be enforced to balance the budget is a hollow gesture that at the very least will be ineffective," Rep. Van Hollen said in the letter, "At the very worst, a balanced budget amendment enshrined within the Constitution could generate a Constitutional impasse with catastrophic consequences."

However, the 25-member Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats, had released a letter on Thursday in support of the amendment.

Today's vote on the BBA is not without historical precedent. In 1995, the BBA passed the House with bipartisan support (including that of Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is now whipping against it). It moved to the Senate where it fell one vote short of passing. 

The version of the BBA that the House will voted on today was a concession by conservative Republicans who wanted to introduce a much stronger version that would require a 2/3rd majority to raise taxes in the future. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said earlier this week that he would "like to see us vote on the stronger BBA."

But GOP aides have said they settled on this version because it had a better chance of passing. According to Erica Elliot, who is a spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), this version puts the ball in the Democrats court. "The American people overwhelmingly support a Balanced Budget to the Constitution and our Members chose to bring this bill to the floor because it has the best chance of passage," Elliot said, "We'll see if the Democrats support the will of their constituents."

The Senate is also required to vote on the BBA before the year ends, but that will not happen until after Thanksgiving.