WASHINGTON -- As a "supercommittee" tries to find $1.5 trillion in new deficit cuts this fall, Republicans will be pressing a far more ambitious goal: passing an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget.
The idea is being pushed most forcefully by conservative activists eager to shrink the government and its spending but disappointed with the results they've achieved so far, as Democrats control both the White House and the Senate.
"Spending cuts and caps are steps in the right direction," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). But he said a balanced-budget amendment is "the only permanent solution to control government spending and end our nation's spending-driven debt crisis."
House GOP leaders, short of the two-thirds margin required to pass the amendment, have held off scheduling a vote. But both House and Senate are required to hold votes this fall as one of the conditions of recently enacted legislation to raise the government's borrowing cap.
It's a decidedly uphill battle, even though Republicans control the House with larger numbers than they had in 1995, when a balanced-budget amendment sailed through the chamber with 300 votes. It fell just one supporter short of the required two-thirds in the Senate.
There appear to be fewer Democratic backers now than there were in 1995, when 72 House Democrats voted for the amendment. For starters, there are far fewer southern white conservative and moderate Democrats in the House than there were back then.
And Republicans have made the task more difficult by pushing a significantly more stringent tea party-backed version of the amendment now than they did in 1995. The new version, by requiring a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate, would virtually make it impossible for future Congresses to raise taxes.
It also would force a huge shrinking of government programs by capping spending at 18 percent of the nation's total economic output each year. This year, government spending is running about 25 percent of the gross domestic product, the widest measure of the U.S. economy.
Democrats won't back the stricter version. But if House leaders also press a vote on the 1995 version -- which permits tax increases by a simple majority vote -- they'll run into opposition from conservative activists like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who say the old version is a recipe for higher taxes.
Norquist warned that version could lead to tax increases imposed by lawmakers squeamish about cutting spending, or even by federal courts.