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Fiscal Cliff Negotiations Settle Back Into Standstill

Just days after a deal on the fiscal cliff seemed imminent, things appeared on the verge of falling apart. How did it happen? David Welna talks to Robert Siegel about how the internal politics of the House have complicated a deal to avert massive, automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Eleven days and counting - not much time before massive tax hikes and spending cuts automatically kick in. Today, the House of Representatives is preparing for key votes that almost certainly will not be the agreement that steers us away from the so-called fiscal cliff. Speaker John Boehner's Plan B isn't even certain to pass.

Joining us is NPR's David Welna to explain the politics behind the politics. And, David, at the start of the week, it seemed like the fiscal cliff problem was on the brink of being solved, now on the brink of disaster. What happened?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, as you'll recall, Boehner had upped his offer on new tax revenues from $800 billion to a trillion dollars worth over the next decade, and that was pretty close to the $1.2 trillion that President Obama seemed willing to settle for. But Boehner did not offer to let upper income tax rates rise, which was a nonstarter for the White House.

So I think you have to see this Plan B that Boehner's proposed as an attempt to move things forward. After all, the fact that it lets the Bush tax cuts expire for income above a million dollars is a really striking departure from Boehner's previous stance of not letting any tax rates rise. In a sense, he's crossing the Republican Rubicon here, and he seemed to imply at a news conference this afternoon that he's the one who's willing to stand up to his party to get a deal done.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Frankly, I'm convinced that the president is unwilling to stand up to his own party on the big issues that face our country. Time is running short. The House will act today, and it'll be up to Senate Democrats and the White House to act.

WELNA: I think it's worth noting that Boehner did not say something today that he said yesterday, which was that if the Senate does not act, it will be responsible for everyone's taxes going up in January. I think Boehner knows full well that polls are showing most people would blame Republicans if there's no deal.

SIEGEL: So as you see it, Plan B would be crossing the Republican Rubicon, that is letting income tax rates rise if only for those who make a million and more. But its numbers are still so far from the president's. What's the point of voting on it?

WELNA: Well, I think today's vote is largely about providing some political cover. It lets Republicans report to their constituents that they did their utmost to keep everyone's taxes from going up. It's not about doing something that Senate Democrats would take seriously. Here's what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to say today about the House Republicans.

SENATOR HARRY REID: We're not taking up any of the things that they're working on over there now. It's time for Republicans to get serious. It's very, very, very unfortunate the Republicans have wasted an entire week on a number of pointless political stunts.

WELNA: In other words, this Plan B would be dead on arrival in the Senate, and the White House has issued a veto threat against it in any case. But what today's vote does do is get a lot of Republicans on the record as willing to countenance taxes going up on the very wealthy. And once they do that, it may give Boehner more maneuvering room to move closer to the $400,000 in annual income that President Obama set as an upper limit for extended tax cuts.

Some of these Republicans may take a lot of heat from conservative quarters for voting for Plan B even though Grover Norquist says it would not violate his no-new-taxes pledge. But I think Boehner has to have them take this stand and put his own job as speaker on the line in order to get to a place where he can strike a deal with the president.

SIEGEL: David, we can hear conservative congressmen every day this week saying that even something like Plan B is unacceptable to them. Is it obvious that this is going to pass with the Republican majority in the House if it comes to a vote?

WELNA: Well, if it comes to a vote. That's the key thing, that Republican leaders will not bring this to a vote unless they feel confident enough that they have enough votes for it to pass. And the fact that they plan to bring it up seems to indicate that they've whipped their caucus and feel confident enough that the majority are with the speaker.

SIEGEL: But from what I hear you saying, Plan B passing would actually be a better sign for the possibility of a compromise between the White House and Speaker Boehner than pulling back this plan for lack of support for Plan B. Plan B, a vote in favor of Plan B would position the Republicans better to make a deal is what you're saying.

WELNA: I think so because I think if the vote were to go down or if they had to pull it back, it would show that Speaker Boehner does not have sufficient clout with his caucus, and that would leave him in a very weakened position to strike some kind of a grand bargain with President Obama. If he is able to prevail with this Plan B, it will strengthen his hand with his caucus and probably give him more confidence in being able to make accommodations to meet the president somewhere between the president's offer and his own.

SIEGEL: Well, we'll see what happens tonight, David. Thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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