Events were moving quickly on Thursday that indicated a fiscal cliff solution would almost certainly be delayed until next year, after John Boehner made a high-stakes move in the House.
House speaker John Boehner was moving forward with a politically risky vote on Thursday night to pass two bills that would hike taxes on millionaires and shift defense spending cuts onto social programs.
Senate Democrats said they would oppose the bills, and President Barack Obama said he would veto the measures.
It would take a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, which seems highly unlikely in the Senate.
Complicating matters is the funeral of the late Senator, Daniel Inouye, and the Christmas holiday. Key Senate leaders are heading to Hawaii after a service in honor of Inouye in Washington on Friday.
Inouye’s burial in Hawaii is on Saturday, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid and others will make the trip.
Reid said on Thursday that Senate Democrats would likely be gathered back in Washington on December 27.
Before then, Boehner and House Republicans will face a series of tests. First, Boehner needs to get enough votes in the House to pass his two budget bills.
Majority leader Eric Cantor seemingly had the votes on Thursday, telling reporters that it would be up to the Democrats to prevent a gigantic tax hike.
“Senate Democrats should take up these measures immediately,” Cantor said in the Capitol. “And the president has a decision to make, he can support these measures, or be responsible for reckless spending and the largest tax hike in American history,” Cantor said.
Reid has already called the votes a “stunt.”
The latest Boehner measures don’t take into account a key Obama request: a two-year deal to raise the debt ceiling.
There is already talk that the Thursday’s night Plan B votes from Boehner are the last negotiating offers from the Republicans for 2012.
“Plan B initially seemed designed mostly as a maneuver to increase House Republicans’ leverage in talks with the White House. Now, though, it appears to have taken on a life of its own as the GOP’s potential final position for the year,” said The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.
The thinking in the media is that Boehner is trying to force public opinion against the Democrats by getting at least one effort on the record to delay the tax hikes and spending cuts that automatically start on January 1.
Seib, a veteran political reporter, says it could be a dangerous move.
“The danger is that Plan B has become an acceptable stopping point for many House Republicans. Many in the GOP now seem to believe the two real alternatives are this bare-bones extension of tax rates for most Americans on the one hand, or a dive off the fiscal cliff on the other. The vote on Plan B could end up making that the big deal more elusive rather than easier to find, at least for now.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza puts the gambit in the context of a high-stakes poker game.
“On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner pushed his political chips into the center of the table,” Cillizza said. “Today we find out if Boehner can make good on what is a major political gamble with a very big downside and a much harder-to-understand upside for the Speaker.”
The upside for Boehner is that he did get tax fighter Grover Norquist to approve of the two measures, and his supporters hope the symbolic move will pressure the Obama camp to accept more spending cuts and less tax hikes.
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The most recent data from Pew Research shows that as of December 18, about 49 percent of Americans don’t expect a fiscal cliff deal before January 1—a number that is relatively unchanged since November.
Other polling numbers from Pew showed that more Americans were in the camp of President Obama about the fiscal cliff.
“When it comes to the reaching an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff, 55 percent say Obama is making a serious effort to work with Republicans. But just 32 percent say Republican leaders are making a serious effort to work with Obama on a deficit deal,” Pew said on December 13.
“By a 53 percent to 33 percent margin, the public sees the Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party, as ‘more extreme in its positions,’” Pew said.
In a December 12 Washington Post-ABC News poll, Boehner was getting more blame than Obama for the impasse.
Only 25 percent of people polled approved of Boehner’s handling of the fiscal cliff situation, compared with 49 percent for Obama.
Boehner's latest efforts could be a deft move to consolidate Republican support, but clearly there are some big risks involved.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.