The outlines of a deal to avoid the inaccurately named fiscal cliff are being reported. The question is how they expect whatever deal they come up with to pass the House. There appear to be two major alternatives.
The first attempt might be for McConnell to allow a Senate vote on the proposal. He’s up for reelection in 2014 so he has to watch his right flank; otherwise he’d probably be pressuring the House to do something semi-rational to avoid destroying the party. As it is, both he and Boehner are facing difficult political situations. Reid is probably right that Boehner’s worried about holding onto his job when the new Congress begins its work. If he pisses off too many Republicans by whatever action he takes or fails to take, he could see a challenge from his own party. He’s already said the House will take up whatever the Senate passes, either passing or amending it. But he might find that doing so will end his tenure as Speaker, and switch to the second alternative of going over the cliff and waiting until after his reelection to the post before bringing up an unpopular bill.
The discussions among the leaders and their staffs are apparently continuing on the premise that it will take the 100-member Senate until Sunday night or Monday morning to pass the bill. That leaves about 24 hours for the 435-member House to examine, amend, and pass the bill before the country goes over the cliff. Everyone knows that the polls say twice as many people will blame the Republicans as blame Obama, and the Republicans will eat higher tax rates for the rich if they go over the cliff. Obama has threatened the negotiators by asking Reid to bring up Obama’s original proposal for a yes-or-no vote if the negotiators fail. This would focus a bright spotlight on McConnell while he’s trying to avoid notice as he helps to raise tax rates. If he filibusters the bill he’ll be hit as a tax raiser, and if he lets it come to a vote it will probably pass. That will put pressure on Boehner to live up to his promise and allow the bill to be voted on. But the House will have only a few hours to look at the compromise bill, far too little to allow for amendments.
What it looks like is that Boehner has admitted his inability to get any bill at all past his dysfunctional caucus, figuratively (as far as I know) throwing up his hands. So the other negotiators have crafted a plan that leaves no room for his restive members to fight, forcing them at the last minute to vote to keep taxes from rising or to let everyone in the country pay higher rates the next day. That will be a tough vote for many Republicans, and such a bill would only pass because it had a majority of Democrats voting for it.
This extremity would be just what the tea partiers in the House want, and it might even help them get reelected, as Nate Silver points out. But if the compromise bill were to fail, or if Boehner would once again be too afraid to bring the bill to a vote, the Republican brand would suffer greatly on the national level, putting the White House out of reach for some years to come.
The Democrats, and particularly Obama, have forced the Republican leadership into a corner where they have to choose between mollifying their tea party wing and remaining a nationally relevant party. This will be fun to watch.