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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.

Democrats showed a unified front, portending a rerun of their unanimous opposition to plan B if Boehner brings an amended version of the Senate bill to the floor.

After a meeting of their caucus attended by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democratic leaders demanded an up or down vote on the legislation, saying Boehner had promised as much in a recent White House meeting with congressional leaders.

It was a bill that was passed in the United States Senate 89-8. Tell me when youve had that on a measure as controversial as this, Pelosi said. The issue of whether we have an up-or-down vote shouldnt even be a question.

There also appeared to be enough Democratic support to pass the Senate plan. Several prominent progressives, including Reps. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, criticized the deal and expressed concern over whether it harmed Democrats negotiating position going forward.

But there was no Democratic revolt. Numerous liberals said Biden had done an effective job selling the deal to members and secured relatively good terms under the circumstances.

Biden made similar promises to those he made to Senate Democrats late Monday, saying President Barack Obama was determined not to negotiate with Republicans over the pending debt ceiling increase.

Still, some Republicans believe that the equation has changed since the bungled plan B vote. For starters, the country has gone off the cliff and taxes have already been increased, so a vote to extend some of the tax cuts could be perceived as a cut not an increase.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the fact that the Senate bill extends most of the tax cuts permanently is a big sell in the conference. Obviously some people still have concerns with the tax [portion, but] my sense is most people could accept this and recognize it as a partial win. Honestly, the permanency is a good thing, he said.

Further complicating things is that even if the House can pass an amended bill, the Senate might not be able to take it up before the 112th Congress adjourns at 11:59 a.m. Thursday.

Since many senators already have left town, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said he wasnt sure exactly how such senators could be corralled back in Washington in time.

The Republican Conference will meet again later Tuesday, and votes are expected on the floor. Leadership aides said not to expect any final decisions until after the second meeting.

The lack of spending cuts in the Senate bill was a universal concern amongst members in todays meeting. Conversations with members will continue throughout the afternoon on the path forward, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said.

Jonathan Strong, Humberto Sanchez, Niels Lesniewski and Sam Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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