In a surprising outcome better ascribed to the law of unanticipated consequences than a clever plot, a small group of moderate Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, are now poised to play an extremely powerful pivotal role.
This group, recently nominated for inclusion in the endangered species list, was given this power by their more conservative colleagues who rejected a compromise budget proposal -- the so-called Plan B -- recommended by House Speaker John Boehner. That created an unsettled situation that will likely be resolved when someone comes up with a plan that can win the support of House Democrats as well as enough moderate Republicans to put it over the top.
There are currently 191 Democrats in the House. If past history is any guide, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can get nearly all of them to vote for anything she endorses that's less radical than the slaying of the first-born son. That's partly because even liberal Democrats, who'll inevitably be unhappy with any deal she makes, think that their only other current option, doing nothing, would yield an even more painful result.
Approval in the House will require 217 votes. At least 26 votes from House Republicans will be needed to put the package over the top. It is not improbable to imagine a bipartisan package getting that many Republican votes. It is not impossible that members of the Republican House leadership, who supported the doomed Plan B and have thus signaled their willingness to vote for at least some tax increases, an assumed feature of the deal, will be among them.
The situation is somewhat similar in the Senate where 60 votes are required. There Democrats are less likely to vote in lockstep (here's a bet -- when the deal is done the percentage of House Democrats supporting it will exceed the percentage of Senate Democrats), so moderate Republicans will be required there as well There also the no-way no-tax Republicans will be marginal to the debate because all know they'll oppose the final package irrespective of particulars.
Some conventional wisdom argues that Republicans cannot and will not vote for legislation that raises taxes and doesn't include spending cuts big enough to please the Tea Party movement, an outcome that won't be in the compromise embraced the Democrats who comprise the majority. For many, but not all, that fear may be justified. But if fewer than 15 percent of Republicans in the House break ranks, the deal can be done. At least that many have reason to seriously consider that option.
There are several logical places to fish for such votes. First among those who are already uncomfortable with their minority position within the party - who are either old enough to retire or young enough to switch careers. Members of this group who see going off the fiscal cliff as a disaster are likely to see any compromise as a lesser evil. This argument is especially resonant to the declining numbers who have stronger links to the corporate community than to the Tea Party. In other words, people who think like Mitt Romney.
Such a vote could be smoothed by giving them something that was important to a constituency group but small relative to the remainder of the package.
It isn't hard to define the pool. It includes Frank Wolf, the only incumbent Republican House member who ever voted for a tax increase (1990) and whose Northern Virginia district was carried by Obama this year. Three Republicans represent Pennsylvania districts Obama won as do two from New York. These are not people for whom voting for any tax increase is a death sentence.
And finally, there is California where you can find similar splits and the fear of being ousted by a Tea Party challenger is offset by the law that gives a slot on the general election ballot to the two candidates who receive the most primary votes, irrespective of party, raising the possibility of a choice between two candidates from the same party in gerrymandered one-party districts.
More than a few volleys remain in this game and the outcome of the fiscal cliff debate will provide more guidance on who has how much influence in subsequent debates. At the moment, it appears that the moderate Republicans have the strongest hand.
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