Boehner's 'Plan B' vote delayed
Republicans in the U.S. Congress pushed ahead on Thursday with a "fiscal cliff" plan that stands no chance of becoming law as time runs short to reach a deal with President Barack Obama to avert a possible Washington-induced recession.
The Republican-led House of Representatives was due to vote on raising income-tax rates on the wealthiest sliver of the population, a move that breaks with decades of anti-tax orthodoxy by the party.
Passage looked likely earlier in the day, when the bill cleared a procedural hurdle. But House Speaker John Boehner postponed the vote Thursday evening as he worked to round up the votes needed for final passage.
It was not clear when the vote would take place.
But Obama has vowed to veto the Republicans' bill, and it is certain to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate before it reaches his desk. Democrats said it was a distraction from the one-on-one talks needed to reach a deal on the "fiscal cliff".
It was not even clear if Boehner would be able garner enough support from his Republican colleagues to win approval for the tax hike.
"We are wasting the people's time," said Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen ofMaryland. "It's time for the Speaker of the House to negotiate with the president."
The clock is ticking toward a year-end deadline. Obama and Boehner aim to reach a deal before New Year, when taxes will automatically rise for nearly all Americans and the government will have to scale back spending on domestic and military programs. The $600 billion hit to the economy could push the U.S. economy into recession.
To placate conservatives, Boehner also scheduled a vote on shifting $55 billion in scheduled defense cuts to cuts in food and health benefits for the poor and other domestic programs. That measure narrowly passed by a vote of 215 to 209.
The Republicans' two-part bill - known as Plan B - could help Boehner convince rank-and-fileconservatives he is doing everything he can to strike the best deal possible before tax rates are set to rise in January.
"Time's running short. I'm going to do everything I can to protect as many Americans from an increase in taxes as I can," Boehner told a news conference.
The effort is a sign of how the broader debate over taxes and spending has shifted in Obama's direction since he won re-election last month on a vow to raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of U.S. households.
The bill would put Republicans on the record as supporting a tax increase on those who earn more than $1 million per year - a position the party opposed only weeks ago.Split the difference?
Many analysts say Boehner will eventually split the difference with Obama, who wants to lower the threshold to households that earn more than $400,000 annually.
Obama also faces resistance on his left flank from liberals who oppose cuts to popular benefit programs, which Republicans say must be part of any deal to tame the nation's debt.
Obama and Boehner will need to engage in more political theater to build support for the painful concessions that will have to be part of any deal to avert the cliff and rein in the national debt, analysts say.
"They have to demonstrate how hard they're trying to get everything they can," said Joe Minarik, a former Democratic budget official now with the Committee For Economic Development, a centrist think tank.
In debate on the House floor, lawmakers welcomed the opportunity to weigh in on talks that have largely taken place behind closed doors over the past few weeks.
The debate ranged far afield.
Republicans criticized Obama's health-care law and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, while Democrats charged that their adversaries are still working to serve the interests of the rich at the expense of less affluent voters - themes that played a prominent role in the recent election season.
"We don't just have a fiscal cliff, we have a fiscal abyss in front of us and that is the debt crisis that is on the horizon," Republican Representative Paul Ryan said during House debate.
Ryan argued the alternative spending cuts passed by the House on Thursday were "smart" and would tighten oversight of expensive federal programs, such as food stamps - not deny benefits as Democrats have argued.
The two sides have suspended talks since Boehner unveiled his bill on Tuesday. But even as he pressured Obama and the Democratic Senate to approve his plan, Boehner indicated he was willing to return to the bargaining table.
"The country faces challenges, and the president and I, in our respective roles, have a responsibility to work together to get them a result," Boehner said.
Investors so far have assumed the two sides will reach a deal, but concerns over the fiscal cliff have weighed on markets in recent weeks. The S&P 500 index of U.S. stocks crept up after Boehner said he was still willing to work with Obama.
It closed up just 0.55 percent in Thursday trading, despite a round of strong data on economic growth and housing.
Republican Representative Mike Simpson said he remains optimistic Washington will reach a deal despite pressure from ideological groups on the left and right.
"There are still enough sane people in Congress to get something done," he said.
Lawmakers had hoped to wrap up work before the Christmas holiday, but congressional leaders have kept the door open for last-minute votes before the New Year.