House Speaker John Boehner's decision to pursue a fiscal cliff backup plan looked like an attempt to go his own way.
But it was really about bolstering his position in the one-on-one talks with President Barack Obama.
Boehner is trying to strengthen his negotiating hand, give himself more legislative options, show his House Republican Conference that he is willing to play hardball and shift blame if they can't come to an agreement.
All of this is part of a highly choreographed Washington play, and in the current act, Obama and Boehner are trying to prove themselves as the more reasonable party with tax rates, spending cuts and unemployment benefits hanging in the balance.
As negotiations behind closed doors slog on without any resolution in sight, both sides are orchestrating strategic leaks to the press and dashing to the House and Senate floor to try to show their colleagues -- and the nation -- that they're the ones that should be taken seriously.
House Republicans will go first. On Thursday, they will bring up the Senate Democrats' tax bill, which extends income rates for only the middle class. That Democratic bill will fail to win a majority, and House Republicans will then try to pass their own legislation extending current tax rates for all income under $1 million.
Yet it's unclear if that bill -- Boehner has dubbed it "Plan B" when he announced the proposal on Tuesday -- has the votes to pass. House Democrats might provide a few votes, sources said. House Republicans know that even if the bill passes the lower chamber, it is unlikely to become law.
But if a bill does emerge out of the House, Senate Democrats have their own strategy mapped out to quash Plan B. Call it "Plan C.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will take up Boehner's Plan B, and amend it with President Barack Obama's own offer, and see if Senate Republicans will provide the requisite votes to send it back to the House. A 60-vote margin is needed to clear any bill in the Senate, and the death of longtime Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Monday means Reid loses one potentially crucial supporter. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), out since January after suffering a major stroke, will also miss the vote.
It's the Capitol Hill waltz, with a year-end deadline looming as the last dance.
These types of votes are typical before deals are finally reached -- and that may be the case this time, too. Judging from the numbers alone, Republicans and Democrats aren't that far apart. Democrats have signaled a willingness to go to a $500,000-income threshold or maybe higher, and more entitlement savings could probably be found. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already backed Obama on a less generous inflation calculator on Social Security.
However, unlike past fights, deeply rooted policy differences remain on issues that challenge the core of each party's ideology, making any deal far from a foregone conclusion. And it's quite certain that a "yes" vote by some Republicans would essentially write their political obituary.
All things considered, time is short. The Senate will also lose two days this weekend as senators, including Reid, will travel to Hawaii on Sunday for Inouye's funeral. That means the earliest the Senate could take up any House bill is after Christmas, perhaps Dec. 26 or 27.
The current Bush-era tax rates expire on Dec. 31, and sequestration -- tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts for the Pentagon and other federal agencies -- kick in starting Jan. 2.
Sources close to the negotiations describe talks as stalled, although staffers were in touch on Tuesday. Obama and Boehner haven't spoken since Monday evening, when the speaker rejected the president's offer of $1.2 trillion in new revenue and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts as "unbalanced." Republican aides say the Obama plan raised $100 billion more than he claims -- anathema to the GOP -- while cutting only $850 billion in spending over the next days. Their aides were in touch Tuesday.
Boehner's strategy is not without great risk. If he can't pass his own Plan B, his hand is hugely weakened in negotiations with Obama.
Boehner and Obama eventually may come to an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff, but right now, the men have serious ideological differences to bridge. Boehner is insisting that Obama cut as much spending as he is raising revenue. The Ohio Republican's accounting of the savings differs from the White House's, but the two remain more than $150 billion apart.
Boehner also wants to boost rates on those making more than $1 million, and Obama has set his threshold at $400,000. Reid and Pelosi (D-Calif.) have privately signaled they're willing to increase their offer to $500,000, according to Democratic sources.
But the gap on new revenue is $200 billion according to Democrats, or $300 billion as the GOP claims.
Boehner made a public concession too -- one that mirrors the private talks: He would be willing to consider changing the Medicare eligibility age in 2013, not as part of a year-end deal.
The past 24 hours of public posturing are a reflection of the up-and-down negotiations. Obama and Boehner appeared to make significant progress over the weekend with the speaker's concession tax rates and a White House counterproposal to raise the income threshold, add more entitlement cuts and attempt to meet Republican demands for dollar-for-dollar cuts and revenue increases.
But Boehner called Obama on Monday night to say he was proceeding with a Plan B strategy, which left Democrats worried that House Republicans could gain the upper hand in the debate, at least as far as position on who is to blame if no deal is reached.
That's when details of the White House plan were leaked, showing they had conceded to the chained consumer price index. White House Capitol Hill liaison Rob Nabors came to the Hill Tuesday to catch flak from liberals.
Boehner's Plan B was received well by House Republicans in a pair of meetings Tuesday. Besides Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), nearly all Republicans supported Boehner's strategy. Conservative Georgia Rep. Austin Scott said he would like to vote for a bill that protects everyone short of $1 million -- but he wants to see spending cuts.
In a later Tuesday meeting in the Capitol basement, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), a staunch conservative, said he was "wholeheartedly in favor" of Boehner's fallback plan. Conservative Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona are for the plan, sources said, but the ideological map of yeas and nays will be difficult for Republican leadership to predict.
In a lighthearted moment during the tense week for House Republicans, the group of GOP lawmakers cheered when Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland's Southern drawl swallowed up the word "boiling."
But among Republicans in the Senate, Boehner's plan was far less popular.
"I continue to know that raising taxes on anybody is not a good way to generate economic growth, and so I understand what he's doing, I'm not going to sit here and criticize what he's trying to do to avoid the country going off the fiscal cliff," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said of Boehner's plan: "I don't like it."
"We know precious little about what this deal is -- this is negotiated in private behind closed doors, they leak one or two little elements and they expect everyone else to comment intelligently on it when we don't know anything about it."
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