The hitchhiker’s guide to the fiscal crisis bill

There is A LOT of trepidation among House Republicans about the bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate this morning.

I have not emailed or spoken with a single House Republican who was excited about this bill. Perhaps that is to be expected because the nature of this legislation forced everyone had to hold their noses and vote for it. And at first blush, most would argue that such an overwhelming vote of 89-8 (three Democratic nays and five Republican noes) would apply SERIOUS pressure to the House to pass this measure quickly and with a strong, bipartisan vote.

But as the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon wrote, “what is past is prologue.”

And it applies big time right here on Capitol Hill.

On Dec. 16, 2011, the Senate scrambled to forge a bipartisan agreement to renew the payroll tax break which was expiring at the end of the year. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was the primary author of the package, engineering the deal. The Senate met on Saturday morning, Dec. 17, and passed the bill 89-10. 

Many believed a piece of legislation with McConnell’s imprimatur would sail through the House.

So the House Republican leadership convened a conference call later that afternoon to brief rank-and-file members on the legislation the Senate okayed. On the call, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared the package a “victory” due to the inclusion of a provision to expedite the construction of the Keystone pipeline.

The call was brutal. For more two hours, truculent GOP members seethed about the Senate’s measure and implored its leadership to fight for a better deal.

In short, Boehner got his head handed to him.

No fool, Boehner realized he couldn’t bring this bill to the floor – regardless of significant bipartisan vote the measure secured in the Senate. Certainly Boehner realized he could try to pass the Senate package in the House with some Republicans and a swath of Democrats. But Boehner couldn’t go there.

For some time now, the House has informally operated under what’s called the “Hastert Rule.” Named after House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., House GOP members simply won’t bring up a bill that doesn’t have a majority of the majority party in favor. Hastert would never force a vote on a bill which didn’t have the support of the Republican conference – even if it could pass with a coalition of some of his members and then a large group of Democrats.

Boehner essentially invoked the Hastert rule. And the payroll tax renewal, which many thought was a fait accompli in the House after the big Senate vote…withered on the vine for several days.

Boehner finally shepherded the bill to passage – by sending home all Republicans and getting the Houe to approve the measure by unanimous consent with only a skeleton crew on hand right before Christmas.

BOTTOM LINE: Remember what happened last year on the payroll tax bill. A significant, bipartisan vote in the Senate means little in the House. And history could repeat itself here. 

One House Republican who asked not to be identified told me that the GOP leadership was “playing with fire” on this bill. Another said that they couldn’t imagine the tax increase to spending reduction ratio “warming our fiscal hearts.”

Another said, “it will be hard to vote against a tax cut despite the fact the overall deal doesn't look great. The problem remains spending.” This member told me they were leaning toward voting nay.

Plus, add into the mixture the fact that Boehner stands for re-election on Thursday afternoon when the 114th Congress convenes. It takes only takes 17 defections by name to send the election for Speaker to a second ballot – for the first time since 1923. 

Boehner has to handle this bill with kid gloves. Thus, you get a JOINT, statement like this from the ENTIRE House Republican leadership team:

“The House will honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement if it is passed. Decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members – and the American people – have been able to review the legislation.”

Would Boehner and others risk the ire of the rank-and-file by putting something this controversial on the floor? 

But, there is something going for advocates of the bill. Like a big omnibus spending bill, this package has a panoply of provisions which many members will latch onto. Some will embrace the tax cuts. Some will vote yes because the bill re-ups most farm programs until September (thus, milk prices aren’t going to double in a few weeks). Western lawmakers will be tempted to vote yes because of the indexing on the estate tax. You name it. So lawmakers will have lots of reasons to cite for a yea vote – if they choose to do so.