Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio struggled Wednesday to find the votes for anything that would prevent the country from going over the fiscal cliff.
With both Democrats and hard-line conservative Republicans vowing to tank his “plan B” bill that would allow tax increases on millionaires, Boehner’s test Thursday will be to show the White House and Democrats that he has some control over his unruly conference as time to produce a deal averting tax hikes and automatic spending cuts runs out.
Boehner was confident Wednesday, telling reporters at a terse news conference that the House would pass a bill to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax rates for those making less than $1 million a year.
“The House will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American — 99.81 percent of the American people,” Boehner said at the hastily called news conference, during which he did not take any questions. “The president will have a decision to make: He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.”
Behind the scenes, however, members were asking that spending cuts be part of any legislative package, including the speaker’s plan B. And leadership aides said the final package was still up in the air.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his team were hard at work trying to sell Boehner’s plan, but by press time, no one but Boehner had expressed total optimism that the legislation would be successful.
Adding to the drama was President Barack Obama’s threat to veto the bill, and the indication by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that it could not pass the Senate.
Nevertheless, a member of the whip team said they tried to sell the plan by telling lawmakers that Obama and congressional Democrats made a political calculation to go off the fiscal cliff, allowing tax rates to go up and deep spending cuts known as sequestration to kick in starting Jan. 2, because the American public would blame Republicans.
If Republicans pass the plan B, the logic follows, they can inoculate themselves against the political attack that they did not at least try to meet the president halfway. That’s the message Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said he received from leadership.
“I think there’s sort of an intuitive feeling on our side, and I don’t necessarily agree with it ... that we just want to mitigate as much damage as possible,” Fleming said. “The idea is ... when the American people start blaming us, we can point to some legislation and say, ‘This is what they asked for. We gave them what they asked for and they still refused.’”
Right-wing activists added pressure by beginning to mobilize on Wednesday, encouraging members to vote against the plan B and vowing to fund primary challengers in the districts of members who back it.
“If the Republicans support this tax increase, they will lose control of the House in the 2014 elections,” Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, said during a press conference in front of the Capitol. “Not only that, but a whole lot of members who thought they were safe and who thought they could get away with this will lose in their own districts.”
Bozell’s statement came despite the blessing of the plan B by Grover Norquist. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, with its pledge of no new taxes, holds considerable sway over Republicans. But the group gave Boehner cover by releasing a statement saying the plan B does not violate the pledge.
Many conservatives, such as Fleming, already said they will vote against it, and Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina offered an alternative in the Rules Committee on Wednesday night that would extend all the tax rates.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, were lukewarm because the plan B does not address sequestration, which includes deep cuts to the military. That could be enough to sink the bill, even if a few Democrats vote for it.
Exemplifying the fluid nature of the plan, a GOP leadership aide confirmed late Wednesday that they will no longer bring to the floor an amendment that extends tax rates only for those making $250,000 and less. Instead, they will bring forward a measure to replace the automatic spending cuts as a separate amendment — an acquiescence to pressure from members, particularly those on the House Armed Services Committee.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said there could be some Democratic defections in favor of the plan B, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed Wednesday that it “will not pass as a result of Democratic votes.”
All this plays while time to conquer a big fiscal cliff deal works against lawmakers. Besides the Jan. 2 deadline, work on a deal will undoubtedly be shortened by the upcoming holidays and the unexpected memorials in Washington, D.C., and Honolulu for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, who died Monday.
Many of D.C.’s most important figures are planning to attend Inouye’s service at the National Cathedral on Friday morning. And, according to multiple sources from both parties, a government plane has been commissioned Saturday to carry lawmakers to Honolulu for Inouye’s Sunday morning funeral service.
The transcontinental trip requires nearly a half-day of flying, and lawmakers who decide to attend the service will lose five hours on their return to the contiguous states. Per the guidance issued to members, the government plane likely will return to Washington early on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Given the tight schedule, many sources suggested that if any votes are called or a deal emerges, there are only two small windows before Christmas to deal with it: Friday afternoon or early Saturday morning. Even then, sources were skeptical that enough progress could be made to get anything wrapped before the holidays.
Most of the speculation on work this weekend revolves around Boehner’s ability to pass his backup plan through the House. If he does, Democrats would then have to decide whether they want or have to take action before everyone leaves town.
Congress is currently slated to return on Dec. 26, a travel day, which means votes are unlikely until late that evening or early on Dec. 27.