House Republicans made scarce during ‘fiscal cliff’ talks

House Republican leaders have limited lawmakers’ time in Washington during the high-wire negotiations with the White House on taxes and spending.

In the more than five weeks since November’s election, the House has held votes on 11 separate days. This week, members returned for a Tuesday evening vote, only to jet back to their respective districts less than 48 hours later. 

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GOP lawmakers have been made scarce at a sensitive time in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) trying to hold the line against tax-rate increases while dealing with conservative anger over the removal of three GOP freshmen from committees. 

House Democrats have in recent days tried to score political points off the tightened schedule, which has cut into the amount of time rank-and-file Republicans have to chat among themselves — and with Washington reporters, who are on the lookout for any signs of dissension.

Republicans say the time away from Washington won’t keep rebellious members from criticizing leadership, even as some acknowledge that the votes on mundane measures remind them of last year’s protracted battle over the payroll tax cut. 

“I do see a recurring pattern here in my second Christmas,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who is finishing up his first term. “So maybe by my third or fourth Christmas, I’ll feel a little more strongly about that.” 

With deficit talks between Boehner and President Obama moving slowly, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) castigated GOP leaders on Thursday for skipping town instead of working toward an agreement.

“Eighteen days from a possible fiscal cliff — hopefully not — [and] 12 days until Christmas, and here we are once again having a two-day workweek in the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi said Thursday during her weekly press briefing in the Capitol. “You have to ask the question: Why are we going home instead of working very hard to forge an agreement?”

But a House GOP leadership aide said the fiscal-cliff negotiations had nothing to do with the light floor schedule. “I don’t think that has an effect,” the aide said.

The voting schedule is set to accelerate dramatically next week, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announcing Thursday that the House could be in session from Monday through the weekend. 

With Obama and Democrats seen as having leverage in the “fiscal cliff” talks, some conservatives say they are trying to give the Speaker space, even if they are far from sure that he will deliver a package they can vote for.

“I can’t speak to strategy, because my Speaker’s out there at great disadvantage, and I need to make sure he has every possible leverage and option,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

In the meantime, House Republicans expressed varying views about whether they should be spending more time in Washington — and about what they should be doing while they’re in town. 

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) noted that members could get back to Washington at a day’s notice, if need be, and said they are nothing more than extras in the deficit drama. 

“I think a lot of members question why we’re here right now,” Westmoreland said.

Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), a freshman recently selected for GOP leadership, said having lawmakers in Washington, even for a few days a week, allows Boehner to take the temperature of the conference. 

“There are conversations that can happen behind the scenes only if we’re all here,” Lankford said. “Obviously, if the Speaker’s going to have latitude to actually be our lead negotiator, he’s going to have to stay in close connection with the conference.”

Other GOP lawmakers are questioning whether the House is using the lame-duck time wisely. 

The chamber has voted to approve the journal and instructions to conferees in recent days, with House Republicans choosing not to bring up tax-and-spending bills or pressing matters like overhauling the U.S. Postal Service and revamping farm policy.

Mulvaney said conservatives have pushed leadership to bring already passed bills back to the floor that would extend all current tax policy for a year and reverse automatic spending cuts.

“We know the cards we’ve been dealt. They’re not great cards,” Mulvaney said. “I’ll come any day they want me to. I’ll come Saturday, I’ll come Sunday. I just wish we were working to tell people what we stood for.”

Senators from both parties have also expressed frustration about being shut out of deficit talks. But their chamber has moved on key pieces of legislation since Thanksgiving, including the annual defense authorization bill.

With any legislation needing to pass the Democrat-led Senate to become law, House Republican leaders have pushed for bipartisan support for unresolved pieces of legislation. 

“If the Democrats wanted to join us on legislation to move forward in a bipartisan fashion, I think you’d see us do that,” the House leadership aide said.

Cantor has not ruled out taking up measures like the postal reform and farm bills before the end of the year.

But Lankford said he thought Republicans would be accused of trying to distract the public if they made a similar move. 

“My gut is, if we dealt any of the other substantive bills, it would suddenly be: ‘OK, you’re ignoring the fiscal cliff,’ ” the Oklahoma Republican said. 

A Democratic leadership aide said GOP leaders might think it preferable to have members in town talking to reporters, instead of speaking anonymously from afar. 

The divisions among Republicans have led some Democrats to comment that the fiscal-cliff fight is giving GOP leaders a taste of the friendly fire that they have become accustomed to.

“In the past, they used to have just one team,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). “Now they’re looking like Democrats, aren’t they?”

Russell Berman and Erik Wasson contributed.