WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House was poised Thursday to pass two bills offered by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as an alternative to avoiding the year-end "fiscal cliff," because he and President Obama have yet to find a final agreement both parties can support.
Just 11 days remain to negotiate a bipartisan agreement to avert a combination of expiring tax rates and new spending cuts that threaten the U.S. economic recovery.
The president and the speaker have exchanged dueling offers to avoid the cliff, but they have failed to find consensus on which Americans should pay more in taxes or how much spending should be cut. The president is also seeking a two-year extension of the debt ceiling - the nation's borrowing authority - which Republicans strongly oppose.
GOP legislative maneuvering on what Boehner has called "Plan B," is more tactical than practical because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will not take it up and Obama pledged to veto it. "We're not taking up any of the things they are working on over there," Reid said, "It's time for Republicans to get serious."
Recent public polling backs up Republican fears their party could take the brunt of the blame if Washington goes over the "fiscal cliff" and tax rates rise on practically every American household.
The latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll showed Americans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin approved of Obama's handling of the negotiations over Boehner.
The speaker is moving forward with a bill to extend the current tax rates for all but those earning $1 million or more to deflect Democratic charges that Republicans allowed middle-class tax rates to expire Dec. 31.
The second bill would replace the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts scheduled to occur Jan. 1 over the next decade with a House-passed plan by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to protect defense programs but enact steeper spending cuts in social programs.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Republicans "are going to have the votes" to pass "Plan B" despite resistance from some members of the GOP rank-and-file who don't want to vote for a bill that lets any taxes increase.
Republicans hope the maneuver will increase pressure on Obama and congressional Democrats. "The president has a decision to make. He can support these measures or be responsible for reckless spending and the largest tax hike in American history," Cantor said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called on Democrats to take up the GOP bill. "I've got a book of quotes from Democrats saying they want to protect the middle class," he said, "Well, here's your chance folks. We're at the end of the line."
Reid said the only short-term solution that could be signed by Obama is a Senate-passed bill that extends the current tax rates for incomes under $250,000, allowing rates for everyone else to rise. "If Republicans want to ensure taxes don't go up Jan. 1, they should simply pass the Senate bill," Reid said, "The Senate bill is the only one that would be signed in to law."
The most recent "fiscal cliff" offer came from Obama on Monday outlining $1.2 trillion in both revenue and spending cuts including a proposal to raise rates on those earning more than $400,000 and a two-year increase in the debt ceiling. Boehner rejected the offer because the spending cuts aren't enough and because Republicans oppose a debt ceiling extension for that length of time. Negotiations have stalled since.
Despite the stalemate, leaders in both parties said they believed it was still possible to reach an agreement, but legislative action after Christmas is now all but certain. "We do not intend to send members home after this vote, we want to stay here, we want to avoid the fiscal cliff from happening," Cantor said.
Reid said the Senate will return next Thursday. "We can get a lot of things done real quickly if we put our minds to it," he said.