Boehner scrambles for votes on tax bill

Fiscal-cliff talks deteriorated into dueling press conferences on Wednesday as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) scrambled for enough Republican votes to pass his backup tax plan over a presidential veto threat.

House Republican officials voiced confidence over the bill’s chances, but more than a dozen rank-and-file members criticized the measure’s lack of spending cuts. Boehner’s proposal would prevent much of the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes from going forward in January, but would allow tax rates on income over $1 million to increase.

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Under pressure from its members, GOP leaders decided late Wednesday to allow a separate vote on a measure replacing the automatic cuts from sequestration. Several members had said they might not otherwise support the measure. And party leaders scrapped a plan to vote on a proposal to extend for one year tax rates for income up to $250,000 a year, a measure designed to appeal to Democrats but fall short of passage.

The new legislation replacing the sequester cuts is similar to a bill approved by the House in May. It would reduce the deficit by $243 billion, leave cuts to Medicare in place and turn off $72 billion in defense and non-defense spending, while adding $300 billion in new cuts. Only 16 Republicans voted against the bill in the May vote.

At a midday press conference, President Obama exhorted Republicans to “take the deal” he was offering and “peel off the partisan war paint” to achieve a compromise.

“At some point there’s got to be a recognition on the part of my Republican friends — take the deal,” Obama said at an impromptu press conference that followed his announcement of a gun violence working group led by Vice President Biden.

“You know, they will be able to claim that they have worked with me over the last two years to reduce the deficit more than any other deficit-reduction package; that we will have stabilized it for 10 years. That is a significant achievement for them. They should be proud of it. But they keep on finding ways to say no as opposed to finding ways to say yes,” Obama said.

Boehner countered that the president would have to choose between his “Plan B” and taking responsibility for steering the nation off the fiscal cliff of painful tax hikes and automatic spending cuts.

“Tomorrow, the House will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American — 99.81 percent of the American people,” Boehner said. “And then the president will have a decision to make: He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill, or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history.”

The Speaker made the briefest of appearances to respond to Obama: He spoke for less than a minute and did not take questions.

Within his conference, doubts mounted about whether Republicans could cobble together enough votes to pass Boehner’s plan.

The House Republican whip operation was on full display during two sets of votes on Wednesday evening, with Boehner spotted in lengthy conversations with several members.

Eleven House Republicans have told The Hill they were either leaning against or definitely opposing the Boehner bill, and many others said they had not decided. With most Democrats expected to vote against it, the Speaker can afford to lose just 24 votes from his own side.

A senior GOP lawmaker close to the leadership told The Hill that Boehner would likely hold a vote on the measure regardless of whether he believes it will pass or fail, to show President Obama that Republicans won’t vote for an option without significant spending cuts.

Walking past reporters in the Capitol, Boehner confirmed that the House would vote Thursday on the bill.

While the plan to hold a separate vote Thursday on a measure to replace the sequester would meet member demands to vote on spending cuts, it would remain a separate piece of legislation from the tax bill.

Party leaders did not want to attach non-germane measures to the tax bill that would give Senate Democrats more of a reason to vote down the legislation if it passes the House.

Freshman Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said she and other members were pressing for spending cuts, and she assailed the president for opposing a policy that she said he had campaigned on.

“I cannot believe that the president went out to the American people and told them that this is what he wanted, and that he can’t get his Senate majority leader to do what he said he wanted him to do,” she said. “Either he’s a liar or he’s going to follow through and pass his bill as soon as we get it out of here.”

The White House issued a formal veto threat on the bill and suggested Boehner was walking away from negotiations.

Congressional Democrats mocked Boehner’s effort, highlighting opposition from conservative groups and predicting the bill would die on the House floor.

“The Plan B will not pass as a result of Democratic votes,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol. She said Boehner’s bill was “an act of desperation. 

The party’s top vote-counter, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), told reporters he expected a few Democrats to vote for the Boehner proposal, but he wouldn’t specify a number.

Democrats on the Rules Committee boycotted a late-Wednesday vote by the panel approving the rule for the tax and sequester bills, and called the process "outrageous."

Both the Club for Growth and Heritage Action came out against the bill, and another Tea Party group said it would back primary challenges to Republicans who supported it.

“It increases tax rates for those making over $1 million while also raising taxes on capital gains and dividends. We don’t buy into the Washington-speak, suggesting that these are actually tax cuts,” the Club for Growth said.

The Boehner bill would increase top capital gains and dividends rates to 20 percent from 15.

Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform gave its blessing to the proposal on Wednesday, saying it would not violate the pledge that most Republicans have taken to oppose tax increases.

And Boehner received a key — if somewhat tepid — endorsement from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House GOP budget chief and 2012 vice presidential nominee.

“Chairman Ryan will continue to work to protect as many Americans as possible from tax hikes,” Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney said. “Chairman Ryan believes that Speaker Boehner’s Plan B meets that criteria.”

Members said the pressure was intense, but it did not reach the level of last year’s debt-ceiling debate, when Boehner was forced to pull his own bill from the floor for a day in the face of conservative opposition.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the whip team, said when asked to assess Thursday’s vote.

 — Molly K. Hooper, Erik Wasson, Bernie Becker, Justin Sink and Peter Schroeder contributed to this report.

This story was posted at 8:17 p.m. Wednesday and updated at 9:25 a.m. Thursday.