U.S. government operations moved close to an end-year doomsday scenario as Senate and House negotiations over taxation and spending issues appeared frozen at the eleventh hour. A White House meeting on Friday left the next step in negotiations at the Senate’s doorstep, where Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were still in talks as of late Sunday. Vice President Joe Biden reportedly is playing a role in those negotiations. McConnell’s cooperation in allowing a bill to the floor of the Senate will be required for any movement of a bill toward signing.
If the Senate can approve a bill before midnight, Dec. 31 then that bill will need to reach a vote in the House of Representatives. That will depend largely on how Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) proceeds. Boehner has insisted to date on getting a majority of the Republican majority in the House to sign onto any measure to be passed in that chamber. It is possible that a bill allowed to get to the floor might pass with a combination of Democratic and moderate Republican votes. It is possible that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi might manage to get a compromise bill to the floor through procedural maneuvering without full support from the Republican side. However, Boehner’s support most likely will be necessary to the yays needed for passage on any bill that would avoid the fiscal cliff.
Boehner’s own ability to lead his Republican caucus is now in question. Negotiating with President Barack Obama appears on the surface to have been the speaker’s undoing. In a bizarre detour from ongoing negotiations with the president, Boehner took a gamble on rolling out “Plan B” earlier this month: an alternate fiscal fix-it proposal intended to win Boehner more leverage in talks with the White House. By the week’s end, Boehner was unable to muster enough Republican backers even to bring the measure to a vote.
Boehner told House Republicans in closed conference he would move to a “Plan B” on the fiscal cliff by having the House vote on extending tax rates on annual income under $1 million, while allowing tax rates on higher income levels to rise from 35 to 39.6 percent. Both the White House and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly fired back that Boehner’s alternative plan would be dead on arrival if it arrived from the House for approval.
Boehner’s failure to rally support for the alternative tactic from his own party ranks has fueled frustration against him among peers and pundits alike. It also appears to be hitting him hard with negative public opinion. Shortly after Boehner’s vote collapse Friday afternoon the Rasmussen survey revealed he has become the least liked congressional leader today. Boehner showed a 31 percent favorability rating in the Rasmussen results (versus 51 percent unfavorability). Nancy Pelosi currently rivals over him with 37 percent favorability – which is not by much.
Public opinion statistics showed a decided edge favoring the Democrats this month. On Thursday the president’s approval rating in the Gallup daily tracking poll hit 56 percent – his highest mark according to Gallup research since October 2009. In a Pew Research poll earlier this month, 53 percent of those surveyed said they would blame the GOP if the crisis was not resolved, versus just 27 percent who said they would blame Democrats.
Speculation about Boehner’s risk of losing House speakership has become rampant as prospective competitors like Eric Cantor have commanded attention for vying to challenge Boehner. Complicating this however is the fact that Boehner brought his most likely challengers in on the negotiating games – thus becoming tainted themselves. Boehner also has a more accurate count of his votes arsenal now as well. He may be in a position where any passage of a bill will require him to draw votes from the Democratic side of the aisle.
If Congress misses the deadline, its members will be able to claim that they voted for a tax decrease in January 2013 rather than being charged with voting for a tax increase in December 2012.
In the new year, Democrats will be in a marginally smaller position in both houses of Congress. Boehner may have a slightly better chance of being re-elected Speaker. Key elements of correcting the long term U.S. deficit and debt problems will have been kicked down the road without any real action. U.S. taxpayers and businesses will know that both the House and the Senate put the national interest, market stability and economic recovery at risk for the sake of protecting their own jobs.