Welcome to the preview of the debate on the Plan B bill—or is that bills?— where the drama will unfold according to an unacknowledged script of party politics.
One of the leading actors in the recitation, House Speaker John Boehner, was not even in the room when the Rules Committee debated well into Wednesday night, before voting to send to the floor the speaker's fiscal cliff proposal that extends Bush-era rates on people who earn $1 million or less as well as on spending cuts, a late addition to the agenda and a retread of a bill the House passed earlier this year.
The spending-cut measure, dubbed the "magical mystery bill" by Democratic Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, because it was not added to the agenda until late Wednesday, is evidence that the speaker did not have the support in his conference for Plan B alone. Spending cuts were needed to sweeten the deal for the restive members of the conference.
"Of course, spending cuts were a very important part of this and we passed the reconciliation package last May, and there were members who were concerned that this didn't have spending cuts in it and so that's why the inclusion of this will allow that to happen," Chairman David Dreier said in an interview.
With time dwindling before the Bush-era tax rates expire and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts begin to bite, Congress and the White House have yet to come to an agreement and the Rules Committee debate offered peak at what you might hear as the parties debate the bills on Thursday.
"I had a chance to look at it, very little of it … What I see is an absolute decimation of the health care bill. It's the biggest outrage I have seen in my lifetime taking place here tonight," said Ranking Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York. "The biggest outrage of your life?" Dreier asked. The bill mentions the Affordable Care Act three times in 69 pages and calls for the repeal of sections of the law.
In a meeting that ran three-plus hours, and also included debate over the defense authorization conference report, Democrats frequently lamented the process, pointing out that President Obama won the election, arguing that means the public favors his approach while Republicans highlighted that most of the Bush-era tax rates would be made permanent in the Plan B bill. But the testiest soliloquy of the night suggested the GOP was willing to leave town before both sides reach an agreement.
"You haven't got enough votes so you're gonna throw in all this crazy stuff," Slaughter said. "What I suspect is you're gonna stick the country with this dog and you're gonna take off. And you're gonna say to Harry Reid, well screw you, Harry. You don't want to take up that bill, well tough," Slaughter said. Reid has said Plan B cannot pass both chambers.
Dreier was not buying his Democratic colleagues' laments, which he later called "crocodile tears."
Meanwhile, House leaders are seeking to cast themselves as the grown-ups in the room.
"Majority Leader Eric Cantor will sponsor the Spending Reduction Act (H.R. 6684). This bill replaces the sequester for one year with responsible spending cuts, that protect our national security, and provides an additional $200 billion in savings over ten years. This is yet another step House Republicans have taken this year to address the real fiscal problem in Washington, which is spending," said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.
If the hard lines drawn in the committee suggest the parties are far from agreeing anytime soon, Dreier sees things differently.
"I came here with Ronald Reagan in 1980. I'm an eternal optimist and where there is life, there is hope. So I am of course optimistic," Dreier said about the chances of grand deal.