WASHINGTON A measure that would amend the Constitution to require the government to balance its books each year fell short in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday.
By a vote of 261 to 165, largely along party lines, the bill fell short of the two-thirds majority that constitutional amendments need to pass the House and Senate.
Despite its defeat, the measure will give Republicans a handy talking point in the 2012 elections as they portray Democrats as insufficiently committed to getting the United States' $15 trillion debt under control.
As a 12-member congressional "super committee" struggled to find $1.2 trillion in budget savings before a Wednesday deadline, Republicans said Congress will never have the discipline to align taxes and spending without a constitutional requirement to do so.
"Washington, D.C. isn't just broke, it's broken, and the time has come to change the way we spend the people's money," said Republican Representative Mike Pence, a leader of the party's conservative wing.
Democrats and many economists say a balanced-budget requirement would tie the government's hands during times of recession, when tax receipts fall and safety-net expenses balloon. Slashing spending or raising taxes during those times would make economic downturns worse, they say.
They point to the budget surpluses of the 1990s as evidence that politicians do not need a constitutional requirement to act responsibly.
"That's like standing behind my mother's skirt," said Democratic Representative Mel Watt. "Grow up. Make responsible decisions."
Budget deficits widened in the past decade when President George W. Bush cut taxes while pursuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and adding an expensive new prescription-drug benefit.
The deep recession of 2008-2009, and President Barack Obama's efforts to fight it through additional tax cuts and domestic spending, have pushed annual deficits above the $1 trillion mark.
Forecasters predict the budget gap will narrow as the economy recovers, before widening again as an aging population pushes up pension and healthcare costs.
Even if the amendment were to pass Congress, it would have to win approval from at least 38 of the 50 states.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)