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Fiscal Cliff Debate: Why The (Very) Few Rule The Many In Congress

In the final hours of the latest budget crisis in Washington, several salient facts are increasingly clear.

First, the leaders of the two parties in the Senate might still put together a negotiated deal that would avert the combination of tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff. The leaders would start with President Obama's top priorities, modify them to accommodate Republican preferences, throw in some measures that are GOP priorities and take the package to the floor.

Second, that package would pass the Senate on Monday on the votes of Democrats, independents and possibly even a Republican or two. That assumes no one filibusters the bill. Even one senator could do so and delay the proceedings into the new year. (More about that rule in a moment.)

Third, if no one filibusters and the Senate approves the compromise package, the House will have enough votes to approve it and send it on for the president's signature. But having enough votes is not enough. In fact, it is likely the package will not even be brought to the floor for debate and a vote.

How can this be?

Even if a majority of the whole House (Republicans and Democrats) were prepared to swallow the Senate deal, they won't get a chance unless Speaker John Boehner brings it to the floor. And Boehner probably won't. He has adopted a rule that no measure will be voted on unless it is supported by a majority of the majority party — that is, his party, the Republicans. At this point, the Senate deal looks unlikely to appeal to most House Republicans.

Many House Republicans refused to vote for higher taxes even on income over $1 million when Boehner gave them the chance back on Dec. 20. Now, any package emerging from the Senate will start the higher taxes on an income amount much closer to the president's preferred $250,000 threshold.

On Dec. 20, Boehner withdrew his "Plan B" proposal because he did not have enough Republicans to pass it on their votes alone. This time around, he might get enough Democratic votes for the Senate deal to supplement some number of Republican votes and achieve a majority of the whole House. That would get the job done, send the package to the president for enactment and avert the cliff.

But Boehner has said he doesn't want the House to pass legislation on the strength of Democratic votes. He wants it to be acceptable to his own party first.

Two points here, in fairness to Boehner. First, if he were to defy the "majority of the majority" rule, he might well have trouble being re-elected when the House formally chooses its next speaker on Thursday. While he has no declared intraparty challenger, enough defections in the actual floor voting could leave him short of the majority needed to make him speaker. That could lead to a chaotic situation in which his future would be uncertain.

Second, the "majority of the majority" rule was not his idea. It dates to the previous Republican speaker, Denny Hastert, who got the big gavel late in 1998 (after the fall of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and after other candidates for the job withdrew).

Hastert, from the outer exurbs of Chicago, was an old-school Midwestern Republican and not one of the hard right conservatives who had enabled the GOP to take over the House in 1994. So he adopted the "majority of the majority" rule to reassure this wing that he would not force compromises on them by making deals with the minority Democrats.

Boehner, from southwestern Ohio, is also of the more traditional Main Street Republican ilk and the furthest thing from an ideologue. He was elevated to his current office in the absence of a single popular challenger after his party seized the House majority in 2010. He has never been the darling of the 2010 freshmen or of the Tea Party activists who fueled that takeover election. Like Hastert, he relies on the "majority of the majority" rule to reassure the most conservative element within his chamber's rank and file.

The Tea Party has fallen on lean times lately, losing some of its leading lights in Congress and once again bearing the blame for lost opportunities in the Senate. But it still bulks large in the House Republican conference, where its numbers were sufficient to stop Boehner's Plan B on Dec. 20. This caucus within the caucus will make it difficult for Boehner to bring to the floor any Senate deal that raises taxes on the wealthy, not to mention any deal that has Obama's blessing.

Some believe Boehner is playing for time in these, the waning days of the 112 th Congress. After the new, 113 th Congress is sworn in Thursday and after he has been re-elected speaker (presumably), he might have more leverage in dealing with his own troops. That remains to be seen.

Before leaving this discussion, we should return for one moment to the Senate. If that chamber sends over a compromise to avoid the cliff, it will mean all 100 senators have agreed not to filibuster it. Under normal circumstances — or what has become normal in recent years — anything this important would surely be filibustered.

So if it seems odd to see a minority of the House bossing the speaker there, it is surely hard for most Americans to understand why it takes 60 votes to shut off a filibuster (real or threatened) and vote on any meaningful bill in the Senate.

In this immediate instance, if no one filibusters, it might be because the entire Senate feels the urgency of the midnight Monday deadline on tax rates and federal spending. But it is more likely that the entire Senate feels confident a filibuster is unnecessary — given the sure resistance the package will meet in the House.

Why risk the wrath of all those who will feel post-cliff pain when the other chamber of Congress is so ready to do it for you?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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