Could A Boehner-Cantor Rift Send The Country Over The Fiscal Cliff?

A rift at the highest level of House Republican leadership is imperiling Senate-backed legislation to yank the economy back from over the fiscal cliff — legislation that House Republicans directly asked their GOP counterparts in the Senate to negotiate and pass.

Now, with hours to go before the end of the 112th Congress, the GOP must find a practical way around the impasse, or test House Speaker John Boehner’s commitment to squashing legislation that lacks the support of more than half of his conference.

Many House Republicans are angry that the Senate bill, which passed overwhelmingly just after 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, includes no net spending cuts — even though it raises over $600 billion in revenue from affluent taxpayers over 10 years. They want to amend the bill and send it back to the Senate, effectively killing it and leaving the new Congress to figure out how to roll back major austerity measures that are already kicking in.

And they have support from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).Republican aides, and GOP members leaving a Tuesday afternoon GOP conference meeting, confirmed that Cantor expressed opposition to the Senate bill in his current form. And according to both opponents and reluctant supporters of the legislation, an campaign is mounting to tack spending cuts on to the legislation and send it back to the Senate.

“I’ll be shocked if this isn’t sent back to the Senate,” Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, told reporters after the meeting.

“I think that they’re heading in that direction,” said retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH), a Boehner ally who said he’d likely support the legislation in its current form. “I think the overwhelming sentiment was that we needed to at least address spending, somehow, through an amendment. There were more than just one or two people who said that we should just take it and go home, but I don’t think that’s a majority sense.”

GOP leadership entered a huddle after a meeting to decide how to proceed. But offering recalcitrant Republicans anything other than a fig leaf will doom the bill, Democrats say.

“I don’t know that we can call people back by tomorrow,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told me. I asked him whether the House now has a choice between passing the Senate bill or taking the country over the cliff. “At this point I’m afraid so. I don’t see how we avoid it.”

So Boehner has two real options. The first is to put the bill on the floor in a way that allows it to pass unamended, with the help of Democratic votes. There’s little doubt it could pass on a bipartisan basis that way, but if the GOP rebellion is severe enough it will force Boehner to violate the so-called Hastert rule — the GOP standard that legislation lacking support from a majority of the party should not come to the floor for a vote — and put his speakership at risk.

The second is to genuinely amend it, lose all House Democratic support, and attempt to pass it with Republican votes only. If they succeed, as Durbin indicated, it’s dead on arrival in the Senate. The House will have violated the bipartisan compromise the House tasked the Senate with striking, and dragged the country over the cliff. But it’s not even clear that an amended Senate bill could clear the House on the strength of Republican votes alone.

“The plan is to develop a plan that will get 218 votes out of this conference,” LaTourette said in response to a question from TPM, “and that’s a very tricky thing as we’ve seen over the last two years.”