April 01, 2011|By Thomas Fitzgerald, INQUIRER POLITICS WRITER

In just three months, freshman Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has emerged as the deficit hawk's deficit hawk, and on Thursday all 47 of his GOP colleagues joined him in sponsoring a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

A cluster of senators, starting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), voiced support for the bill that Toomey wrote after negotiating a deal between two sets of Republican senators with competing approaches to such an amendment.

"A balanced budget is an absolutely necessary condition for the strong economic growth and job creation that, frankly, we were sent here to accomplish," Toomey said in his first full-bore Capitol news conference.

The measure "will provide the fiscal straitjacket that we need to get our fiscal house in order," he said.

Since amending the Constitution is a high hurdle - requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and ratification by 38 states - the chances are slim that the proposal will be enacted any time soon.

A balanced-budget amendment fell one vote short of passing the Senate in 1997, after the last serious push.

Republicans hope, at the least, to frame the current debate over the federal deficit and to influence a coming vote to raise the national debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion. Toomey, a former investment banker and business owner, was an early advocate of opposing an increase in the borrowing limit in order to force serious controls on spending; an increasing number of conservative Republicans are taking the same position.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned that the United States will default on its debt if Congress does not raise the ceiling, causing an economic catastrophe. Toomey and others argue that the nation has plenty of revenue to cover its loan payments, provided that lenders were paid first and other spending was cut sharply.

"This government is incapable of living within its means, and we have to go to this extent to get things done," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah), the prime sponsor of the failed 1997 amendment.

Under the new proposal, the government could not spend more than the revenue it gets in any fiscal year, and total federal spending would be capped at 18 percent of the gross domestic product, the measure of all the U.S. economy's output.

Hatch said that 18 percent was about the average rate of federal spending to GDP over the last 50 years; the rate now is approaching 25 percent.