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Political Ice Caps

The line was buried deep in the16th paragraph of a missive dashed off from the desk of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). On Wednesday, Cantor penned a letter to rank-and-file Republicans about expectations in the 113th Congress. He specifically addressed the pent-up frustration many House Republicans have with the Democratically-controlled Senate.

"There is no magic procedure that will make someone vote for something to which they are violently opposed," Cantor wrote.

However, Cantor could just as easily been writing about members of his own party. Certainly House Republicans grouse daily about their bills languishing in the Senate. Over the past two years, a chunk of House Republicans consistently refused to vote for legislation that raised the debt ceiling, kept the government operating and temporarily extended a payroll tax break. The House struggled for months on end to find the votes to approve a major bill to fund the nation's transportation programs. And to date, the House Republican leadership has never conjured up the votes to okay a farm bill.

Despite his exasperation with the Senate, Cantor offered a quote from President Ronald Reagan about how to get the other body to come around. It's a line, which again, Cantor could apply to his own House Republicans: "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."

Intended or not, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) beamed some of that "heat" on House Republicans during a members-only conference call this week. He reminded GOPers that they were most powerful when they stick together. He noted that Democrats have the advantage when Republicans fail to cobble together 218 votes on an issue. 218 is the minimum number of votes needed to pass legislation in the House. Boehner then characterized the re-election of President Obama as narrow and put the onus on him to find a solution to fix the fiscal cliff issues.

In other words, Republicans had trouble sticking together on big ticket items for the past two years. But Boehner subtly reminded them of the single-most pervasive force that unites Congressional Republicans: opposition to President Obama.

So Boehner launched a crusade to remind everyone who is in charge - and from where he thought the answers to the looming fiscal cliff should emanate.

"Mr. President, this is your moment, we're ready to be led," Boehner said when he addressed the press mid-week. "We want you to lead."

Boehner reconfirmed that assertion during his Friday press conference.

"This is an opportunity for the president to lead. This is his moment," said the Ohio Republican.

After President Obama spoke at the White House Friday afternoon, Boehner reiterated his mantra.

"The president has an historic opportunity to lead both parties in forging an agreement that averts the fiscal cliff," said Boehner in a statement.

The Speaker of the House is walking a narrow path now. That partially explains why he's willing to defer to the president for a battle plan. For now. After all, Boehner can't appear to jump on board with the president right away or he could ignite a firestorm in his conference. Still, as a pragmatist, Boehner knows he must look like a willing partner prepared to negotiate with Mr. Obama.

Boehner has said as much in recent days. But he can't be viewed as getting ahead of Mr. Obama on this one. If Boehner starts spouting plans which serve as red meat to his rank-and-file, he runs the risk of Congressional Democrats and the public dismissing Republicans as obstructionists who operate in an ideological bubble, ignorant to the election results.

No wonder Boehner has repeatedly said he doesn't think the lame duck session of Congress is the forum in which to resolve the entire fiscal cliff. First, a serious time crunch really inhibits lawmakers from pursuing a major program to alter tax policy and entitlement programs. But Boehner faces potential criticism from his own conference who are ready to pounce if they perceive him as ceding too much ground.

Boehner has been crystal clear that he's open to new government revenue "under the right conditions." But that's not what some conservative lawmakers heard.

"I am concerned that by the Speaker's comments, while vague, are inferred by many as a willingness by Republicans to raise taxes," said Rep. John Fleming (R-LA). "I am also puzzled by the Speaker's willingness to put new tax revenue on the table when the expiring Bush tax rates come before Congress."

Other staked out their own tax policy turf.

"I think he offered too big an olive branch," said one House Republican who asked not to be identified. "I'd be hard-pressed to support anything beyond fairer, flatter, or simpler - or perhaps user fee increases."

Some Republicans were ready for the GOP-led House to serve as the rear-guard against the president once again.

"It becomes clear to me that the House is now the last line of defense for preserving freedom in this country," said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) in a statement. "The people of South Carolina clearly rejected President Obama's policies, and I intend to fight on their behalf."

Comments like those explain why the Speaker's Office sent a memo to GOP members and key staff decoding what happened at the polls.

"If there is a mandate coming out of Tuesday's election, it is a mandate for both parties to work together to avoid the fiscal cliff and support economic growth instead of damaging out economy."

So the question remains, how does Boehner navigate this narrow passage?

On Friday, President Obama again called for a deal to impose higher taxes on the wealthy.

"Americans from across the political spectrum made it clear that they want a balanced approach to tax policy that asks millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "The sooner Republicans come to grips with this reality, the sooner we can forge an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff and prevent a tax hike on middle class Americans."

Of course, it takes two to tango. No one expects the Democrats to drop their tax the rich argument. And no one expects Republicans to cave. So where does that leave everyone? Potentially right back where everyone was over the past two years.

Will Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Steve King (R-IA) again chirp about defunding the Affordable Care Act? Is it possible for House Republicans to pass an annual appropriations bill for the Department of Human Services that doesn't take a stab at the health care law, even if the Democratically-controlled Senate backfilled the money later?

How about that pending vote to again raise the debt ceiling?

"It's an issue that's going to have to be addressed sooner rather than later," said Boehner cryptically at his Friday news conference.

Will Republicans vote for that?

Again?

And if Boehner moves at all toward any of the president's positions, how many Republicans are willing to vote aye on a fiscal cliff agreement?

Boehner offered a hint about his course of action when it comes to major bills.

"When the president and I have been able to come to agreement, there's no problem getting it passed here in the House," said Boehner.

Past is prologue. That's how Boehner muscled through legislation over the past two years to raise the debt limit, avert a government shutdown and approve the transportation bill.

On the rank-and-file conference call Wednesday, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) reminded his colleagues that the GOP will have a smaller majority in the 113th Congress and they can't afford to have too many defectors on their side of the aisle.

In the current Congress, Republicans hold a 240-190 advantage with five vacancies (note, that the House will fill most of those vacancies next week). Democrats believe they'll have at least 200 seats if not more once all of the outstanding contests are settled. Just for the sake of argument, let's say the number is an even 200 for the Democrats in the 113th Congress. That means Republicans have 235 votes on their side. With the present 240-190 split, Boehner can lose 25 members of his own party before he has to seek help from the other side of the aisle. With 235 Republicans, that number shrinks to 17. That figure could be even lower once all of the races are settled.

With such a narrow divide, it would seem that the House would craft centrist legislation that may be amenable to President Obama and the Democratic Senate. But how does Boehner do that with such a conservative bloc of members in the GOP ranks? Would they tolerate that?

Eric Cantor put it best in his letter on Wednesday.

"There is no magic procedure that will make someone vote for something to which they are violently opposed," wrote Cantor.

The House will be violently opposed to some things. The Senate will be violently opposed to some things. And Mr. Obama will be violently opposed to some things.

How do they come around? "When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat."

Few conservatives believe in global warming. But if that's the path, there could be thermal change on Capitol Hill in the coming months.

Because right now, Congress remains sealed under unmelted, political ice caps.