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House GOP Balks at Senate Cliff Bill but Has Few Options, Little Time Left

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Boehner, center, and Cantor continue to meet with the Republican Conference about the Senate-passed fiscal cliff deal.

House Republicans emerged from a Tuesday afternoon conference meeting showing near-unanimous opposition to the Senate-passed fiscal cliff deal and holding that without spending cuts the bill should not be brought up.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio remained relatively neutral about the Senate bill (HR 8), but he told the conference he was shocked by how many Senate Republicans supported it, according to sources in the room. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, meanwhile, gave the strongest indication yet that leadership stands opposed to passing the bill without amending it.

“I do not support the bill. We are looking for the best path forward,” Cantor told reporters after the meeting. “We are looking for the best path forward and no decisions have been made.”

Leadership is looking for a path forward, but most members who exited the meeting said that the next step will probably be to try to amend the bill, most likely with a measure that cuts spending, and send it back to the Senate.

“I would be shocked if this bill does not go back to the Senate,” Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus of Alabama said as he exited the meeting.

A senior Senate Democratic aide says the Senate will not contemplate taking up an amended fiscal cliff package from the House that contains new spending cuts. The aide added that House Republicans should not have stepped away from White House negotiations if they needed spending reductions to get the deal.

The two-hour meeting was characterized as a listening session, during which leadership resolved to let rank-and-file members speak up and offer options for a way ahead.

Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon of California and other members laid out an option that would amend the bill with a one-year diversion of the sequester that is paid down with immediate spending cuts.

Other members suggested amending the bill to exclude an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, which is part of the Senate bill, but some members worried that amendment would be a poison pill and would surely sink the deal if it reached the Senate.

The road ahead is fraught with uncertainty, though. It is clear that GOP leaders will not be able to pass the Senate bill as is with a majority of their conference. What remains unclear is whether leaders can muster enough votes to pass an amended version of the bill.

Boehner struggled to pass his “plan B” legislation last month after members balked at the prospect of allowing tax rates to rise on those making more than $1 million annually. The Senate bill affects income rates even lower than that, so leadership would have an uphill climb to get 218 Republican votes without Democratic help.

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