The top man in the U.S. House of Representatives -- and the main Republican foil to President Barack Obama in intense talks -- predicted Thursday his chamber would pass a plan to avoid the looming fiscal cliff's automatic tax increases.
But will it matter?
Thursday night's expected House activity would mark a milestone in the often tense negotiations because it is the first time in recent weeks either chamber has put a plan up for a vote. But without the White House or Democratic-controlled Senate's assent, the House measure -- and a related one, tied to spending cuts -- go nowhere.
That leaves the next steps in this long process unclear, with scenarios ranging from intensified and ultimately successful talks in the coming days or entrenchment as the fiscal cliff becomes a reality next year, when a new Congress will enter negotiations with Obama.
The main GOP measure set to be voted on Thursday, known as Plan B, would extend tax cuts that are set to expire at year's end for most people while allowing rates to increase to 1990s levels on income over $1 million. Party leaders previously had insisted they wouldn't raise rates on anyone, while Obama pushed for tax rates for households with incomes over $250,000 to return to 1990s levels during his campaign.
The vote on that bill was still to come Thursday. But the House did narrowly approve, 215-209, a related measure to alter automatic spending cuts set to kick in next year under the fiscal cliff, replacing cuts to the military with reductions elsewhere. The Congressional Budget Office said this would lead to $217.7 billion in cuts over the next decade, short of the $1.2 trillion in cuts that would go into effect in January if the fiscal cliff isn't averted.
Moments after this vote, the White House issued a statement indicating it would veto this bill, should it somehow pass the Senate as well.
"For weeks, the White House said that if I moved on rates, that they would make substantial concessions on spending cuts and entitlement reforms," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday. "I did my part. They've done nothing."
While the Ohio congressman said Obama seems "unwilling to stand up to his own party on the big issues that face our country," Democrats say Republican leaders are buckling to their conservative base by backing off as negotiations seemed to be nearing a deal.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the GOP alternatives "a major step backwards," claiming they'd lead to extended tax cuts of $50,000 for millionaires. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said his chamber won't even vote on the measures, which he described as "pointless political stunts."
The war of words notwithstanding, Boehner, Carney and Senate Democratic leaders all said they were ready to talk.
"I remain hopeful," Boehner said. "Our country has big challenges, and the president and I are going to have to work together to solve those challenges."
How we got here and what's next
The possibility of a fiscal cliff -- which economists warn will hit the American economy hard -- was set in motion two years ago, as a way to force action on the mounting government debt. Negotiations between top Congressional Republicans and Democrats resumed after Obama's re-election last month as did the barbs from both sides.
Polling has consistently shown most Americans back the president, who insisted that wealthy Americans must pay more, rather than Boehner and his Republican colleagues, who balked at tax rate hikes and demanded spending cuts and entitlement program reforms.
A new CNN/ORC International survey released Thursday showed that just over half of respondents believe Republicans should give up more in any solution and consider the party's policies too extreme.
The two sides seemingly had made progress on forging a $2 trillion deficit reduction deal that included new revenue sought by Obama and spending cuts and entitlement changes desired by Boehner.
Senior administration officials said Obama and Boehner have not spoken since Monday, when the president made a counterproposal to a Republican offer over the weekend.
The president's offer set $400,000 as the household income threshold for a tax rate increase. It also included a new formula for the consumer price index applied to benefits for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to protect against inflation, much to the chagrin of some liberals.
The new calculation, called chained CPI, includes assumptions on consumer habits in response to rising prices, such as seeking cheaper alternatives, and would result in smaller benefit increases in future years. Statistics supplied by opponents say the change would mean Social Security recipients would get $6,000 less in benefits over the first 15 years of chained CPI.
Boehner essentially halted negotiations by introducing his so-called Plan B on Tuesday. He described it as a fallback option to prevent a sweeping tax increase when tax cuts dating to President George W. Bush's administration expire at year's end. The spending cut vote -- similar to one passed by the House last year that went nowhere in the Senate -- was added to the docket late, to appeal to conservative legislators upset about backing a tax increase without acting on spending and protecting the military budget.
The passage of Plan B and the spending bill would put the onus on Obama and Senate Democrats to accept them or offer a compromise.
But the Obama administration is standing firm. Officials have demanded that wealthier Americans bear more of a tax burden. As to the spending cuts bill, spokeswoman Amy Brundage dismissed the GOP alternative as "nothing more than a dangerous diversion" for eliminating federal funding affecting millions of seniors, disabled individuals and poor and at-risk children in a White House blog post Thursday afternoon.
The fiscal cliff talks are keeping Congress in Washington beyond the holidays.
Boehner's No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, earlier said House members will remain in Washington after the votes Thursday, indicating the possibility of further negotiations.
And Reid noted that Senate work would be delayed for a memorial service Friday in Washington and the funeral Sunday in Hawaii for Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died this week. The Senate will return to work on December 27, two days after Christmas, Reid added.