The House has rejected a proposal to amend the US Constitution to require a balanced budget, seen by many as the only way to force lawmakers to hold the fiscal line and reverse the flow of federal red ink.
The 261-165 vote was 23 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment. Democrats, swayed by the arguments of their leaders that a balanced budget requirement would force Congress to make devastating cuts to social programs, overwhelmingly voted against it.
Even if it had passed the House, the proposal had little chance of clearing the many political hurdles needed for enactment. But the vote gives both parties ammunition going into next year's elections. Republicans can say they were trying to put America's fiscal house in order; Democrats can say they were defending the social programs.
Four Republicans joined the Democrats in opposing the measure.
The first House vote on a balanced budget amendment in 16 years comes as the separate bipartisan supercommittee appears to be sputtering in its attempt to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.
With the national debt now topping $15 trillion and the deficit for the just-ended fiscal year passing $1 trillion, supporters of the amendment declared it the only way to stop out-of-control spending. The government now must borrow 36 cents for every dollar it spends.
"It is our last line of defense against Congress' unending desire to overspend and overtax," Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican, said as the House debated the measure.
But Democratic leaders worked aggressively to defeat it, saying that such a requirement could force Congress to cut billions from social programs during times of economic downturn and that disputes over what to cut could result in Congress ceding its power of the purse to the courts.
Even had it passed, the measure would have faced an uphill fight in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The Democratic argument was joined by veteran congressman David Dreier of California, who broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to speak against the measure. The Rules Committee chairman said lawmakers should be able to find common ground on deficit reduction without changing the Constitution, and he expressed concern that lawsuits filed when Congress fails to balance the budget could result in courts making decisions on cutting spending or raising taxes.
The House passed a similar measure in 1995, with the help of 72 Democrats. That year, the measure fell one vote short of passing the Senate. This year, only 25 Democrats supported the proposal.
Constitutional amendments must get two-thirds majorities in both houses and be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The last constitutional amendment ratified, in 1992, concerned lawmaker pay increases.
The amendment would not have gone into effect until 2017, or two years after it was ratified, and supporters said that would give Congress time to avoid dramatic spending cuts.
Forty-nine states have some sort of balanced budget requirement, although opponents note that states do not have national security and defense costs. States also can still borrow for their capital-spending budgets for long-term infrastructure projects.
The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.