WASHINGTON – In case the public weren’t frustrated enough over Congress’ failure to resolve the fiscal cliff, consider this: lawmakers probably could enact a compromise quickly and easily if Republican leaders let Democrats provide most of the votes.
That would give Democrats a bigger voice in the bargain, of course, which the Republican-led House is loath to do. That’s why about 10 percent of the House’s members – staunch anti-tax conservatives – were able to thwart Speaker John Boehner’s bid to pass a narrowly crafted bill that might have strengthened his bargaining hand.
By trying to pass his plan with GOP votes alone, Boehner could afford to lose only two dozen of the 241 House Republicans. His private headcount found nearly twice that many defectors, party insiders say, forcing Boehner to give up without seeking a formal vote. The miscalculation left negotiations in disarray as the Monday deadline nears.
The House’s 192 Democrats essentially sat on the sidelines, bit players in last week’s House drama.
House speakers traditionally advance major legislation only if most of their party’s members support it. It’s called the majority of the majority rule of thumb. But past speakers, including Democrat Nancy Pelosi and Republican Dennis Hastert, have ignored the rule at times.
Some Democrats are now calling on Boehner to do the same to avert the fiscal cliff of big tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the new year.
Veterans in both parties say many House Democrats would likely join a sufficient number of Republicans – though not necessarily a majority – to pass a compromise along the lines that Boehner and President Obama seemed to be nearing last week before Boehner struck out on his own.
Such a compromise plan might preserve Bush-era tax cuts for all couples making less than $400,000 or so a year. It also could include an outline for future spending cuts and changes to keep the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting millions of new taxpayers.
But Boehner abruptly launched his separate proposal – he dubbed it Plan B – which the conservatives’ revolt killed late Thursday. Boehner’s plan would have spared anyone making less than $1 million a year from a tax rate increase in 2013.
At least 40 House Republicans refused to back any tax rate increase at all, lawmakers said, dooming the plan. However, perhaps as many as 200 House Republicans apparently were willing to let tax cuts expire for a fraction of the wealthiest households. That’s a significant break from the party’s orthodoxy of no tax increases, ever.
An Obama-backed deal – even if every House Democrat backed it – would still need another 25 votes in that chamber. Some Democrats say Boehner should let a few dozen willing Republicans provide those votes by putting an Obama-blessed bill on the floor.
If Speaker Boehner is willing to bring to the floor of the House a bill, and just let this House work its will, Democrats and Republicans voting as their conscience determines, then I believe we can get something done, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Bloomberg TV.
He noted that Pelosi, as House speaker in 2006, violated the majority of the majority rule by letting Republicans provide most of the votes for an Iraq war funding measure she disliked.
Hastert, the Republican speaker from 1999 to 2007, overrode the rule at least twice. In one case, he let Democratic votes carry the load on a stem cell research bill that everyone knew President George W. Bush would veto.
Boehner could put something on the floor and vote against it, said John Feehery, who was a top aide to Hastert. But it’s more likely, he said, that Boehner and other Republicans will let the Monday deadline pass. That would send the government over the cliff and let virtually all tax rates rise, at least for a while.
Then early next year, Feehery said, lawmakers could vote to cut taxes rather than vote to raise taxes.