House Speaker John Boehner spoke confidently about the prospects of his Plan B bill, an answer to President Obama's latest fiscal cliff offer that would lower tax rates for people who earn $1 million or less after the new year.
“Tomorrow, the House will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American–99.81 percent of the American people. And then the president will have a decision to make: He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history," the speaker said on Wednesday.
But whether he has the 218 votes to clear the lower chamber remains up in the air, at least according to some conservative members. The level of conservative opposition spilled outside the Capitol on Wednesday, where the Heritage Foundation and Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas railed against the measure. The public, the congressman said, "sent congressmen and women to this town to change it." Translation? The fact that the GOP is considering Boehner's proposal at all betrays the public's trust at some level, they argue.
The question, then, is why is Boehner bringing the bill to the floor in the first place, risking sniping from the right and threats to table the legislation from the White House and Senate Democrats? And the answer, at least according to experts on Congress, is the speaker is a political card sharp.
"I think he's playing lots of different cards. He's been a really shrewd guy in a weak position. He's a good poker player really," said Ron Peters of the Carl Albert Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma.
What cards exactly the speaker is playing depends on whom you ask, but the game appears to be this: Pass Plan B so the party is inoculated if no bigger deal is reached and the nation goes over the fiscal cliff.
The GOP gambit is, "if we're able to pass it in the House, we'll lay down a marker and the Democrats wouldn't go along," Peters said. In other words, Republicans could claim they were willing to be reasonable and raise rates.
The other advantage of the measure is that it could move the president off the $400,000 figure included in his recent proposal.
"It may well have the effect of forcing the president to accept something more than the current $400,000 bid and might get him to accept half a million," said Ross Baker of Rutgers University.
Still, the offer does not at least yet, include spending cuts, though Republican leaders are considering adding them to make the deal more palatable to rank-and-file members.
"Offering it decoupled from spending cuts causes real problems for Boehner in the GOP conference," Baker said.
That may be, but even if spending cuts are inserted into the bill, it's far from certain Senate Democrats and the White House would go along. Boehner is setting the stage for an agreement that will likely require Democratic support to get through the House.
"Where it's eventually going to end up, they'll get a deal but Boehner will not have 218 Republicans. What he'll have to hope for is that he gets some. … He wants to tell his conference that we tried at every opportunity to do this on our own," Peters predicted.
Even so, that just shows that an agreement between the president and speaker is the missing ingredient. With time running short, Plan B might be a key scene in the fiscal cliff drama, but whether its passage makes getting a deal done easier s hard to argue.
"I don't know if anyone knows how to make a deal in this town anymore," said the Congressional Institute's Mark Strand. "Government is supposed to be a compromise. It's very frustrating to watch, yeah, most people expect, of course they'll make a deal, but show me the evidence."