Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made two things clear early when he met with reporters in the Ohio Clock Corridor just outside the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon.
First, McConnell declared his opposition to any tax increases. Secondly, he said he favored a permanent tax reduction for all.
But the Senate's top Republican wavered in his support for the latest gambit to solve the fiscal cliff engineered by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
"We will deal with what comes over from the House," said McConnell. "We will see what they want to do."
Well, what "they want to do" (meaning Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership brass) is execute a similar plan of action advocated by McConnell. Boehner rolled out what aides billed as "Plan B" on Tuesday morning. This blueprint calls for the House to renew tax cuts for all Americans earning up to $1 million annually. The legislation is silent on those pulling down a figure above the $1 million threshold.
Sounds consistent with what McConnell advocated, right?
"I can't imagine I would not be supportive of permanent tax reduction," said McConnell. "I support not raising taxes on any taxpayers."
But that's not quite how Boehner's Plan B will work. It may extend the tax breaks most Americans receive today. But taxes would spike for those taking home more than $1 million because the legislation doesn't re-up that category.
Therein lies the rub for Republicans. Why would Boehner put a piece of legislation on the House floor that could prompt tax rates for anyone to rise? Boehner signaled some days ago he was willing to allow tax rates for top income brackets to increase. But why bother putting a piece of legislation on the floor which some Republicans doubt will pass? And why put the package out there when few on Capitol Hill view this effort as part of the give-and-take between the Speaker of the House and President Obama to avert a plunge off the fiscal cliff at the end of the year?
Of course, Boehner aides indicate that there's nothing in the bill that directly raises taxes. But that doesn't mean that rank-and-file Republicans don't see this as a "vote to raise taxes." Or better yet, those lawmakers worry that outside interest groups intrepret Plan B as a measure that triggers a tax increase - and will score this vote as such.
"I'm not doing cartwheels over it, that's for sure," lamented Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), one of the most conservative members in the House.
One House conservative who asked not to be identified said Boehner's overture produced "a lot of angst" among Republicans, especially since the scenario didn't resolve the problem. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told reporters he was confident the House would adopt Boehner's risky proposition. But others weren't so sure. And no one expected the idea to go anywhere in the Senate.
"We took a step back today," said an adviser to President Obama to Fox. "The last 24 hours feels a bit uglier."
This is why many Republicans wondered aloud exactly where Boehner's endgame was taking the House, just days before Christmas and right before a noxious brew of big tax increases and major government spending cuts is set the rattle the U.S. economy.
"We don't ever want to go on the record as raising taxes when we haven't in 100 years," complained Rep. John Fleming (R-LA). "If any of us are going to go on the record, what are we getting in return for that?"
Part of the disconnect between Boehner's idea and some in his conference is that it doesn't tackle one-half the fiscal cliff: spending cuts.
"There's more concern about having no cuts at all," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), scheduled to move to the Senate in January.
"There is nothing on spending and that is the problem here," said Rep. Allen West (R-FL), defeated for re-election last month. "You never get to spending. That's what I've seen historically."
So what is going on here?
Boehner is fond of frequently saying his hand on the helm of the House is to allow the body to work its will. It may. But there are two potential outcomes here. Either the House will outright defeat the plan that would result in higher taxes for millionaires. Or, it will pass the measure and send to the Senate with no chance for resolution in the other body. That leaves some Republicans holding the bag with what many will argue was an on-the-record vote for tax increases - even if the legislation doesn't expressly say it would do so.
"Everyone should understand Boehner's proposal will not pass the Senate," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
That may be no surprise. But that's never stopped Boehner before. In fact, throughout the 113th Congress, he's routinely passed bills which never went anywhere in the Senate. In addition, Boehner's prepared major, must-do measures which suffered major attrition from the Republican Conference. Such was the case on bills to avoid government shutdowns, increase the debt ceiling and reauthorization of transportation and highway programs. In those instances, Boehner's had an ace up his sleave: some House Democrats. Right now, the House of Representatives has 241 Republicans, 191 Democrats and three vacancies. Former Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) and Bob Filner (D-CA) all resigned. That means Boehner can only lose 25 of his own before he needs help from Democrats. Democrats have contributed lots of votes to pass those ultra-controversial measures like keeping the government open and increasing the debt ceiling. But it's doubtful they'll offer any assistance on Boehner's Plan B.
"We're going to urge our members to vote no," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said. "I think Boehner's plan today of a Plan B is not helpful. I think it's more of a political ploy."
But a political ploy that takes the House where? Sure, Republicans who vote yes can argue that they re-upped tax breaks that were broader than even Democrats called for. After all, Democrats only advocated renewing the tax cuts for individuals making less than $200,000 annually or couples earning less than $250,000.
Still Republicans think they can turn the knife a bit on Democrats if they vote no. They point to a May 23 letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to Boehner where she argued that "tax cuts for those earning over a million dollars a year should expire and...we should use the resulting revenues to pay down the deficit."
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck made sure reporters were aware of Pelosi's missive. He asked "How can they reject a plan" after Mr. Obama traveled the country throughout the campaign, demanding that millionaires contribute more of their share.
One theory on Boehner's effort is to try to see how many votes he can get from Republicans on a plan that only generates tepid support from conference? Sure, Boehner may be able to strong-arm it through. But at the end of the day, many lawmakers harbor reservations about it. Some argue this could be a dress-rehearsal for a final fiscal cliff bill that rank-and-file Republicans hate. But at the end of the day, Boehner would convince his colleagues to swallow a bitter pill that no one on either side of the aisle much likes - but accepts - simply because it vanquishes the fiscal cliff.
But the sides are a long, long way away from genuinely solving the fiscal cliff riddle. Senior Republican Congressional aides told reporters late Monday night that despite nuemerous talks with the White House, "we have not really gotten to the point where we are under the hood" and that they were "not past the spending and revenue question" yet.
That means Congress very well could be in session taking votes after Christmas. That hasn't happened since the House met on December 31, 1970 to approve a stopgap spending package to avoid a government shutdown.
After Tuesday night's meeting, reporters buttonholed Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) about why it was taking so long for members to solve some of these issues.
"Because it's not January 1st yet," replied Simpson.
This may be Plan B. But there's lots of time before January 1st. That means we could see Plans C, D, E, F and G or more before there's a final fix to the fiscal cliff.