WASHINGTON -- House members are being called back to the capital by Sunday evening in a move that could be more symbolism than substance, as House Speaker John A. Boehner again pressured the Senate to send his chamber a bill to avert the New Year’s Eve "fiscal cliff."
During a conference call Thursday afternoon with far-flung rank-and-file lawmakers, Boehner sought to deflect attention from the House, which has already passed bills to prevent the coming tax hikes for all Americans, including the wealthy, shifting attention to the Senate. Votes were set for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, though no budget legislation is pending.
"The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass – but the Senate must act," Boehner told his troops, according to someone on the call granted anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
The return of the House may be more optical than practical as the House is increasingly being portrayed as having walked away from "fiscal cliff" talks after Boehner’s own Plan B imploded in a party revolt last week.
President Obama cut short his holiday with his family in Hawaii to return to the capital on Thursday as the Senate opened for a full day of activity, while the House held only a routine 10-minute session as the chamber is on recess and lawmakers are largely away from Washington. House members have been on 48 hours’ notice to return.
Boehner’s push to get the Senate to act comes as the upper chamber, which is controlled by Democrats, has already approved its preferred legislation to stem the coming budget crisis. The Democrats’ bill would prevent tax hikes on all but the wealthiest 2% of Americans, with incomes above $250,000, as is Obama’s preference.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has given no indication he will bring forward another proposal without the support of Republicans in both chambers. Without an agreement, most Americans will face immediate tax hikes in the New Year, and the federal government will begin to endure automatic spending cuts that could jolt the economy.
The key will be if Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, will allow an alternative proposal from Democrats that could sweeten the deal for Republicans while still hewing to Obama’s priorities, including an extension of long-term unemployment benefits that Democrats want on the bill. McConnell has kept a low profile during talks, keeping his views close to his vest.
Or Democrats would need to pressure Boehner to allow a vote on the already approved Senate bill, which would be expected to have widespread support in the House, largely from Democrats -- putting the Ohio Republican in the unorthodox position of allowing legislation to pass the chamber without the support of his majority.
Passing a Democratic bill is a risk Boehner has been unwilling to take, as his own reelection as speaker is expected next week, after the new Congress is sworn into office Jan. 3.