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Republicans, eyeing midterms, hold 'messaging' vote on deficits

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday failed to pass a balanced budget amendment that would have prohibited federal spending from exceeding revenues.

FILE PHOTO: People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Republicans held the symbolic vote to show voters that their party still cares about fiscal responsibility just days after congressional budget analysts said annual U.S. deficits will soon approach $1 trillion due to recent legislation.

The balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution had little chance of becoming law since it would need Democratic support in the House and Senate, and approval from three-fourths of U.S. states.

Republicans pushed for it despite passing tax cuts in December that are projected to add $1.9 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Last month, the Congress passed a bipartisan $1.3 trillion spending bill, adding even more red ink.

Republicans, who portrayed themselves as fiscal conservatives when their party was out of power, now control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House.

The balanced-budget amendment was a “messaging measure,” said Republican Representative Charlie Dent, who voted for the tax cuts and the spending bill.

“It’s an effort to convince our base that we really care about the budget but that’s a pretty audacious thing to do” shortly after the spending bill, said Republican Representative Thomas Massie, a Libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative who supported the tax bill, but not the spending package.

Separately, some Republicans are working with the White House to try to undo portions of the spending package.

Representative John Yarmuth, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said on Thursday that the balanced budget amendment was “a stunt to give Republicans political cover for their deficit-exploding tax scam.”

The tax law, the spending bill and other recent measures, will result in an $804 billion deficit in fiscal 2018, compared with a $665 billion budget gap in fiscal 2017, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected this week.

“If it ends up costing what has been laid out here, it could well be one of the worst votes I’ve made,” Republican Senator Bob Corker, a fiscal conservative, said of the tax law at a hearing on the CBO report. Corker is not seeking re-election.

The tax law, passed without Democratic support, is the Republicans’ main legislative achievement since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, and many lawmakers plan to highlight it in their re-election campaigns.

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who advises groups opposed to the tax law, said “voters are aware of how fiscally reckless Washington is and they’re increasingly realizing it’s Republicans to blame.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who cultivated a reputation as a fiscal conservative, said on Wednesday he would not seek re-election, dealing a blow to fellow Republicans and Trump ahead of fast-approaching congressional elections.

But Republican consultant Whit Ayres said the “tax cut bill does give Republicans something concrete to campaign on,” while “deficits are an abstract issue.”

“It really depends on the state or the district,” Ayres said of whether deficits concerns will matter.

Reporting by Amanda Becker; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Phil Berlowitz and Richard Chang