Speaker of the House John Boehner has hinted that any deal to avoid the fiscal cliff on January 1 negotiated in the Senate by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid would be subject to amendments when it reaches the House.
In practical terms, this means that chances to conclude a deal before the January 1 deadline are remote.
At issue — the tax rate increase on “the rich.” It is likely that any deal coming out of the Senate would raise the income level for the tax rate increase to no more than $500,000 from the current $250,000. Even if there were enough House Republicans who would go along with any tax increase at all, that number would probably be unacceptable to a majority of those opposed to raising the rates. Boehner will have a hard time selling any increase to his caucus below $1 million — a figure that the president has indicated is off the table.
McConnell and Reid have promised to deliver a proposal to the Senate on Sunday.
If there is a Reid-McConnell deal, officials said, it would probably include these elements: an extension of current income-tax rates for most Americans; a measure to block a scheduled expansion of the alternative minimum tax; an extension of unemployment benefits and possibly a measure to prevent a scheduled cut in Medicare payments to doctors.
A wide range of other issues are on the table that could serve as sweeteners or stumbling blocks, potentially including elements of a stalled farm bill. Mr. Obama wants to include an extension of the U.S.’s borrowing limit, which will be breached in the spring, but that is unlikely, officials said.
The president also wanted to postpone the $110 billion in spending cuts due to take effect Jan. 2. Mr. Boehner said he wouldn’t agree unless other programs were cut to compensate. A GOP aide said it was “clear” the spending cuts wouldn’t be addressed this round.
Likely to be included is a measure blocking a Jan. 1 increase in the estate tax, an issue that divides Democrats and is make-or-break for senators of both parties. “I’m totally dead set on keeping the rates right where they are,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), guessing that 60 senators shared his position.
How the House will respond to any Senate deal is a crucial unanswered question. According to a spokesman, Mr. Boehner told the president the House would consider whatever bill passes the Senate, either accepting or amending it.
Are there enough bitter end Republicans in the House who could torpedo a deal? It would depend on two factors: whether almost all Democrats would vote for a Senate deal and just how much influence Boehner still has over his caucus. If all House Democrats support a deal coming out of the Senate, Boehner would be granted some leeway in herding Republicans to the finish line. The speaker could lose up to 25 members and still carry the day.
But given Boehner’s inability to convince Republicans to vote for his “Plan B” proposal last week, it is an open question whether he could hold enough of his own caucus to get a deal done. It didn’t help that Boehner purged some tea party members from influential committees — only to see the ideological compatriots of Reps. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Justin Amash (Mich.) and Dave Schweikert (Ariz.) stiff the Speaker when he needed them for his Plan B gambit. Are there any inducements or threats that Boehner could offer that would change that dynamic? It is not wise to underestimate the power of the speaker but Boehner has not been able to show that he has the fortitude to crack the whip to get reluctant members back in line. Even appeals to members that the GOP would suffer ruinous losses in the 2014 midterms if no deal is reached appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Given that time is running out, the Senate may not pass a deal until Monday — if they can come together to pass anything at all. At that point, with a matter of hours remaining before the deadline, Boehner may be forced into a straight up or down vote on the Senate proposal. Any amendments desired by House Republicans would have to be cleared in the conference committee — a remote possibility given the time constraints and the insistence by Senate Democrats in sticking with Obama’s plan.
It will take all of Boehner’s skills as a politician to convince his reluctant caucus that this stop-gap deal — with no amendments — is the best that can be achieved and that the GOP should accede to the president’s wishes.
Don’t bet the House on it.