This was a vote on tabling (killing) a motion to bring up (known as a “motion to proceed”) legislation that would cut $111 billion from federal programs in 2012, cap federal government spending as percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), and require Congress to pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment (literally, an amendment to the constitution requiring a balanced federal budget) before raising the U.S. debt limit. Specifically, the bill capped federal spending at 22.5% of gross domestic product in 2012, 21.7% in 2013, 20.8% in 2014, and eventually 19.9% in 2019. This bill, strongly supported by Republicans, had already passed the House of Representatives.
[In previous years, Congress had voted to increase the debt limit with little controversy or fanfare, regardless of which party controlled the House, Senate, or the White House. This year—in 2011—House Republicans, who held a majority in that chamber, refused to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agreed to deep spending cuts. While most economists argued that defaulting on the nation’s debt could bring about an economic catastrophe, Republicans effectively held the raising of the debt limit hostage until Obama and Congressional Democrats agreed to make major concessions with respect to spending cuts.]
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) supported the bill: “If we are serious about growing the economy and creating jobs, we have to get federal spending under control. We need a smaller federal economy and a larger private economy. What has been happening since this president took office is that we continue to grow government. We have added 35 percent to the debt. Spending has increased by 24 percent--non-national security discretionary spending--at a time when inflation was 2 percent. Federal spending has been growing at 10 times the rate of inflation. The number of people receiving food stamps has gone up by 40 percent. The unemployment rate is up by 18 percent, and 2.1 million more people are unemployed today than when this president took office. The policies of this administration are not working when it comes to getting people back to work and getting spending and debt under control.”
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) criticized the bill: “The legislation [the underlying bill] that has been sent to us by the House is one of the most ill-considered, ill-conceived, internally inconsistent pieces of legislation I have seen in my 25 years in the U.S. Senate. It has all the earmarks of something that was hastily thrown together, really pasted together….We are better than this. The Congress is better than this. Certainly, the country is better than this…. The proposal before us has all of the potential to turn a recession into a depression. Why do I say that? Because it would prevent Congress from taking urgent action to provide lift to the economy in the midst of a severe economic downturn. Here is what Norman Ornstein, a distinguished scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said about this: ‘Few ideas are more seductive on the surface and more destructive in reality than a balanced budget amendment [to the constitution]. Here is why: Nearly all our states have balanced budget requirements. That means when the economy slows, states are forced to raise taxes or slash spending at just the wrong time, providing a fiscal drag when what is needed is countercyclical policy to stimulate the economy.”
The Senate tabled (killed) the motion to bring up this bill by a vote of 51-46. All 51 Democrats present voted “yea” (in favor of killing the motion to bring up the bill). All 46 Republicans present voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate effectively killed legislation that would cut $111 billion from federal programs in 2012, cap federal government spending as percentage of gross domestic product, and require Congress to pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment before raising the U.S. debt limit. Congress eventually did pass, however, different legislation that raised the U.S. debt limit by $2.4 trillion (to $16.7 trillion) through 2012, cut more than $900 billion from social programs and military spending, and created a commission to propose an additional $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings (either from spending cuts or tax revenue increases). President Obama then signed that measure into law.