As lawmakers creep closer to the fiscal cliff, they are working under the shadow of multiple failed attempts by President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner to strike a sweeping deal. And they have no clear legislative path forward outside those talks.
Boehner brought to the floor Thursday a plan that would allow taxes to increase only on millionaires — a sizable concession on the Ohio Republican’s part — but had to pull it for lack of votes. Even before then, though, leaders acknowledged that bill wasn’t the end game.
“There’s clear recognition this is not going to be the final package,” said House Rules Chairman David Dreier of California. “But I think this is a step down the road toward getting it resolved by the end of the year.”
Before pulling the bill, leaders whipped it furiously, in one of the most vigorous arm- twisting sessions of the 112th Congress, according to one member of the GOP whip team who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and every other Republican leader was pressing flesh for “plan B,” a rare sight in Congress.
Committee chairmen were engaging their rank and file, and whip team members were asked to speak to every member with whom they had a personal relationship, whether it be a delegation colleague or just a friend.
“This is a point where his speakership’s on the line,” the member said regarding Boehner. “It’s a big vote and we want to be able to deliver for our speaker.”
At the same time, the member said the names of those who vote against the measure are being noted, an ominous sign after leaders recently pulled four GOP members from their plum committee assignments, apparently in retribution for not hewing the party line.
“You don’t think that list is going to be around for a long time and you need something from the speaker?” the member said. “In this business, if you can’t be here when your friend is in a fight like this, he’s not your friend.”
Even though Senate Democrats vowed they would not take up the measure and Obama has threatened to veto it, the vote was seen as important because Boehner cast it as not just a show of strength to Democrats but a dose of reality for his conference.
“He’s trying to condition the conference for what’s ahead. This isn’t going to be the last big negotiation we’re going to have,” the member said. “Some of these people are going to have to learn you can’t have absolute victories with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate. If you think this is bad, wait until you get to tax reform.”
Still, some Republicans were not persuaded. “I don’t want to raise taxes on anybody,” Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga, said. “I think it’s the wrong thing to do. We’ve got to stop the outrageous spending here in Washington because spending is the problem; it’s not about taxes.”
Senate Republicans saw the measure similarly as Dreier did: a means to a legislative end.
Each previous budget or spending negotiation this Congress has largely been forged by congressional leaders, then blessed by the president.
Boehner and Obama failed to reach a grand bargain in 2011 and seem on the brink of failing to do so again this year. Top GOP aides wonder when the talks between the principals will resume in earnest.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reiterated Thursday that he would not “do anything” with the House legislation. “We’re not taking up any of the things they are working on over there. ... It’s time for Republicans to get serious,” Reid said at a tense afternoon news conference.
Senate Democratic aides insist that Reid meant what he said. But as the standoff gets closer to Christmas, or New Year’s for that matter, the pressure will only increase for lawmakers to find a way out of the impasse.
When asked, senators did not indicate there were any contingency plans in case the administration and House GOP fall short of a deal and take the government over the fiscal cliff.
If it’s true that there’s no real backup plan in the works — lawmakers have been extraordinarily guarded throughout the talks — congressional Democrats could face some pressure to step up to the table and work out a deal with their Republican counterparts.
“So we’re ready here to negotiate with the House anytime,” Reid said. “We’re here to reach out to our Republicans in the House and tell them, get back and start talking to the president. You have a multitrillion-dollar deal that they’ve been talking about, multitrillion deal. They’re a couple of hundred billion dollars apart. This is absolutely senseless.”
The prospects of any sort of deal being reached before Christmas, especially, looked dim Thursday.
The schedule is working against lawmakers as services for the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, continue, first on Friday at the National Cathedral and then on Sunday in Hawaii. According to multiple sources, lawmakers have commissioned a government plane for members who want to attend the final service in Honolulu; that plane is scheduled to leave Saturday.