Boehner begins sales pitch for 'Plan B'

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday night began the arduous task of selling his frustrated members on legislation that allows a tax increase, with lawmakers predicting a close vote on the floor.

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Republican leaders met with the full conference for a second time Tuesday to outline the details of what Boehner called his “Plan B” – a bill that would avoid part of the fiscal cliff by making permanent tax rates on annual income up to $1 million.

Lawmakers said members inside the meeting expressed both support and opposition for the plan, and several Republicans complained afterward that it contained no spending cuts beyond leaving in place $109 billion in across-the-board reductions that members of both parties detest.

Democrats have come out strongly against the bill, meaning Boehner will have to come up with most of the 218 votes on the Republican side.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Hill afterward that he thought the proposal would get the votes it needs to pass the House. “I do think so, yes,” he said.

Other members were not so sure.

"There is a shot to get to 218 among Republicans, but it is hard to tell," Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said.

Boehner announced the plan in a conference meeting earlier Tuesday, a day after he rejected President Obama’s latest offer for a broader deficit-reduction deal that would avoid most of the tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1.

His proposal, tentatively scheduled for a vote Thursday, would allow some taxes to rise but would not increase the debt limit or completely avert the fiscal cliff. In addition to the marginal income rates, it would keep the estate tax at its current level, permanently patch the Alternative Minimum Tax, and set the capital gains and dividend rates at 20 percent.

Democrats immediately denounced Boehner’s plan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed it would not pass the Senate.

Some Republicans took note of the Democratic opposition.

“The question is, as a conservative, why go on record raising taxes on anybody if it never even gets the chance to cut spending or even get into law?” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) asked. “I still want to study it some more, but I haven’t found a way to support it.”

Aides said staff-level negotiations with the White House continued on Tuesday, but Boehner did not report progress in the evening meeting.

“He told us there is no Plan C,” Fleming said.

Boehner has successfully pushed through Republican alternatives during late stages of earlier negotiations with the White House over the debt ceiling and the payroll tax in 2011. With that history in mind, Fleming and other lawmakers skeptical of the proposal predicted he would do so this time around as well.

“With enough arm-twisting, he can force this through,” Fleming said.

“We’re skeptical that that’s potentially a good strategy,” he added. “But you have a president who was just re-elected, and he obviously has strength as a result of that.”

Leaders planned to bring up two measures to the floor on Thursday. The first would provide a one-year extension on rates for family income up to $250,000, mirroring the original Democratic position. The second would be Boehner’s proposal with the $1 million, with additional provisions for the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and investment taxes. Republicans are expected to vote down the Democratic version.

Deputy whips and leadership members were dispatched with pink and white whipping sheets during votes directly after the evening meeting.

The whipping sheets contained two questions, according to a lawmaker familiar with the material.

"Stopping all tax increases for under a million and the Senate bill," the lawmaker told The Hill.

Depending on the temperature-taking whip count, the House could vote on one option or both – or none if Boehner can't get the votes to pass either measure.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is leaving the House for the Senate next year, said he still is studying how he will vote. He said he and some other members prefer Plan B to the Obama negotiations, because of the chance to get deeper cuts next year in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling.

“Plan A, the cuts were so minimal," Flake said. He said Plan B at least could get the tax rate issue "out of the way" and allow the GOP to turn the debate to spending.

"We’ll only get serious talk on the spending once we aren’t considered the party of the 2 percent," he said.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would not commit to supporting Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would not undo any of the automatic spending cuts scheduled to hit the defense sector.

“We’re all concerned about sequestration,” McKeon said about his committee. “I’m still learning more about it. I’ve got to really, really look at it.”

Among some members, Boehner’s argument that they needed to prevent a tax increase for as many people as possible was taking hold. "I kind of feel that am a life-guard and there's millions of Americans about to drown in huge tax increase,” Stivers said. “I am trying to save as many as I can.”

--Peter Schroeder and Bernie Becker contributed.