Toomey authors balanced budget bill

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WASHINGTON -- In his opening months on the job, Sen. Pat Toomey has cast himself as a serious voice on budget reform, and Republican leaders are taking notice.

Pennsylvania's newest senator is scheduled to lead his first U.S. Capitol news conference today, flanked by GOP brass, to introduce a bill he authored to create a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Mr. Toomey melded two GOP proposals to produce a single bill designed to gain the backing of the entire 47-member Republican caucus -- from tea party rabble-rouser Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the perpetual swing-vote Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. A spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wouldn't confirm whether the entire caucus had signed on, but Mr. Toomey said he believed that was the case and the bill was held back for two weeks in order to get a unanimous GOP front for its debut.

"I think it speaks volumes about the fact that Republicans are united under the idea that we've got to get spending under control," Mr. Toomey said in an interview Wednesday.

"It took a while but eventually we were able to get everyone together on the same page."

Mr. Toomey's first bill -- which failed in a floor vote -- dealt with the nation's debt limit, and Mr. Toomey repeatedly touted it in speeches before the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Senate Tea Party Caucus and the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Toomey has long supported a balanced budget amendment, and he felt he could bridge the gap between competing proposals within the GOP caucus. He was to introduce the amendment earlier this month, but Mr. McConnell decided to hold off until all Senate Republicans could be reeled on board.

The resulting proposal kicks in five years after its ratification, when it would require that the nation's budget spend no more than its revenue, and cap spending at 18 percent of the gross domestic product. The requirement can be waived for a single year with the vote of a majority of both houses of Congress during a declared war, with a three-fifths vote during a military conflict -- only allowing increased spending related to the conflict -- and a two-thirds vote at any other time.

"It's an attempt to establish a high hurdle, a high threshold for running an imbalanced budget," Mr. Toomey said.

But the highest threshold of all is passing a constitutional amendment. The amendment must earn a two-thirds vote in both Houses, then be ratified by 38 states.

Just step one -- getting 20 Democrats to sign onto the amendment to push it through the Senate -- will be difficult.

Mr. Toomey didn't sound confident about getting 67 votes for the bill, but he did say it could be a starting point for budget reforms tied to the looming vote to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling -- as the country's borrowing is fast approaching the congressionally mandated cap. Mr. Toomey and others have said they will not vote to raise the ceiling without significant reforms to the budget making process, and the proposed amendment would satisfy that aim.

And despite the cascade of red ink in recent years, Mr. Toomey said it's not an unreasonable goal.

"There's no reason that we can't balance our budget," Mr. Toomey said. "We briefly had modest surpluses in late 90s. That's not exactly ancient history."


Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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