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By just seven votes, the House failed Tuesday to pass a long-proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

A heavy 279-150 majority voted for it, but it fell just shy of the two-thirds majority needed.All three Utah House members voted for it, saying it is the only realistic hope of ever reducing the federal deficit. They also blasted plans to vote Wednesday on a simple statute requiring balanced budgets, saying numerous such bills have been ineffective.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has long sponsored the amendment in the Senate and led a campaign for states to call a constitutional convention to push it, also called the vote Tuesday "a backward step, one that this country will feel deeply in the pocketbook."

Still, the mere fact that the House took the vote in the first place and that it came so close to passage was almost a minor miracle.

Democratic leadership - which contended the amendment was just a feel-good gimmick - had bottled it up in committee for years. To bring it directly to the floor for a vote, 218 of the 435 House members had to sign a petition.

All three Utah House members signed that petition and also are co-sponsors of the amendment. They said the amendment came so close to passage because problems with the federal deficit have become so bad - and voters are fed up.

During the debate, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, raised the plastic card he uses to electronically cast House votes and said, "This is the most expensive credit card in history."

He said members of Congress have used them for the past 20 years "in a spending spree that must end. The Balanced Budget Amendment is the needed tool for ending the economic suicide that we have been slowly committing."

Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, noted that when Congress first voted on the amendment in 1982, the deficit was $127.9 billion. When it voted on it next in 1986, the deficit had risen to $221.2 billion.

And now, he said, the deficit is "more than $300 billion when Social Security trust fund contributions and the monumental cost of the savings-and-loan bailout are included."

He added that the government spends 33 percent more than it receives. "We take in $900 billion and borrow $300 billion so that we can expend $1.2 trillion. "

Owens said, "If we've learned anything from this annual budget Kabuki dance, it's that the process is not the problem. Courage is the problem."

Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, said, "All we wanted to do was give people a chance to vote on this." If the amendment someday is passed by two-thirds of both houses, it then would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

"The amendment is important for fiscal discipline. Without it, the president would be laughed out of the place if he submits a budget that is anywhere near balanced. Even when he submits one that just reduces growth, they laugh," Nielson said.

Even though the amendment would still allow a deficit in years when 60 percent of Congress approves it, Nielson said, "It would still make Congress at least think twice about what it is doing."

The three Utah House members also blasted plans for a vote on a simple statute to require a balanced budget.

"They say that a balanced budget can be achieved through legislation. If this were true, we would have balanced the budget this year," Hansen said.

Owens said, "The federal deficit has continued to skyrocket despite four separate statutory attempts to balance the budget" in 1978, 1979 and 1987.

Nielson called the vote on the simple statute "a gimmick to save face by opponents" of the amendment.

Critics of the amendment in turn called it a gimmick to hide the failure of Congress and the president to cut the huge federal deficits.

"A balanced budget amendment was born in the same cradle as the cliches and simple solutions that told us we could have good times without having to pay for them," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta, D-Calif.

Meanwhile, House Republicans Wednesday declared their opposition to any deficit reduction plan that includes new taxes, a position Democrats said would cripple budget talks with President Bush.

The resolution was approved by voice vote at a meeting of the House GOP only hours before congressional leaders were to meet Bush.