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Roll Call

Conservatives Grapple With Fiscal Cliff Strategy

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Members of the Republican Study Committee, including Mulvaney, raised concerns about the speaker’s “plan B” to avert the fiscal cliff at a Wednesday meeting.

Speaker John A. Boehner likes to say he learned to deal with “every character” that walked into his father’s bar while growing up.

Now the Ohio Republican has to deal with every character’s fiscal cliff plan, at least if the members of the Republican Study Committee have anything to say about it.

Members of the group vigorously discussed the party’s fiscal cliff strategy at a closed-door meeting Wednesday, with numerous lawmakers saying afterward that changes are likely to the “plan B” bill Boehner has put forward.

The group discussed “plan C, D, E, F, G and I think there was a Plan H,” Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., joked.

But the ideas could get more serious consideration if Boehner’s plan fails to attract enough Republican votes for House passage, a very real possibility.

A plan to extend all the expiring tax cuts was being led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, outgoing chairman of the RSC, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who prepared late Wednesday afternoon to offer a replacement plan at a Rules Committee markup that will set the boundaries of the nascent tax package the House is supposed to consider. The effort had support from other key conservatives including Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is in line to be RSC chairman in the 113th Congress.

Supporters said they wanted a vote that would affirm the main objectives of many House conservatives, instead of giving ground to Democrats. According to aides, the amendment offered by senior RSC members includes a proposal to provide an alternative roster of spending cuts — or sequester replacement measures — to take the place of the automatic spending cuts under the 2011 debt deal.

Party leaders have been vague about whether they would allow conservatives to offer their own across-the-board tax cut extension amendment on the floor, noting only that Republicans have previously had similar votes.

The rump campaign gained momentum after the RSC’s Wednesday lunch, where several participants said members had expressed mixed feelings about Boehner’s “plan B” proposal to extend the expiring tax cuts for taxpayers with annual earnings less than $1 million.

Among other prominent alternative plans is one proposed by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.

Under the Price plan, the House would vote on six amendments to a bill. Each amendment would extend the Bush-era tax rates on a single income tax bracket, and all six amendments would presumably pass the House.

But unlike a normal bill, this legislation would be sent to the Senate with instructions that whatever version of the bill the Senate passed could be sent to the president without another round of House approval.

Thus, House Republicans could be on record extending rates for all income brackets and simultaneously put Senate Democrats in the hot seat of trying to decide where to draw the line on whose taxes go up.

But the plan is strongly opposed by House leaders, who fear the result would be increased tax rates on more income brackets than in the “plan B.”

Their rationale is that under the Price plan, the Senate would quickly extend current rates for only income below $250,000, providing a total Democratic victory.

Adding drama to the discussion is the budding rivalry between Boehner and Price.

Price was recently unmoored from the leadership team when he lost a contest for conference chairman to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. Price dismissed the notion of any power play on his part, saying “It’s not a rival plan.”

Numerous Republicans expressed preference for Price’s plan, including Florida Republican Reps. Allen B. West and Dennis A. Ross, as well as Reps. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, and Walsh.

Another plan under consideration was to combine two previously-passed House bills: one that extends current tax rates on all income and a second bill that replaces spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal sequester with other cuts.

“That’s what we ought to be passing,” said Rep. Paul Broun, who, like Price, is a Georgia Republican with potential ambitions to take on Sen. Saxby Chamblis, R-Ga., in a 2014 primary.

Other members suggested that Republicans could just highlight to voters that they already passed those bills, rather than passing them again.

“We’ve already passed tax cuts for everybody. So, you know? They need to take our bills up that are waiting,” said Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, referring to the Senate.

“I’ve always supported the bill originally passed by the House with 19 Democrats to prevent anybody’s taxes from going up. So far, that’s the only bipartisan plan that’s come before either chamber,” Scalise said.

Others backed Boehner’s “plan B.”

Rep. Tom McClintock drew an analogy to a lifeguard to underscore that under current law, rates will go up on all income brackets if Republicans do not act.

“Here’s the fine point of it: if a lifeguard sees 10 swimmers drowning off his beach and he can only save nine of them, it doesn’t mean that he’s drowned the tenth one. And no lifeguard would be worth a damn if he said: ‘As a lifeguard I maintain the principle that nobody should drown off my beach; and since I can’t save all 10, I won’t save any because that would go against my principles,’” McClintock told members at the meeting.

Driving the discussion was the question of which bill puts Republicans in the best position to pin blame on Democrats if the country goes over the fiscal cliff.

Members are convinced that Democrats are actively thwarting the negotiations to ensure that scenario, hoping to benefit from it politically.

“We don’t think anything we pass out of the House is going to make it in into law, it’s all about positioning ourselves for what happens when Democrats deliberately put us in the fiscal cliff situation,” said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.

Also attending the RSC meeting was Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who was introduced by Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner as the incoming president of that think tank, and Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Jim Risch of Idaho.

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