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House Quiet on Fiscal Cliff Strategy

The Senate is abuzz with meetings, planning and trial balloons on how Congress will address the fiscal cliff, a phenomenon that threatens a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts in the new year that most economists believe could tip the United States back into recession.

But on the House side, it’s crickets chirping – at least in terms of strategy discussions, leaving some rank-and-file Members looking for answers.

“If there’s a plan on how we’re going to deal with this mess, then it must be in Al Gore’s lockbox because I haven’t seen it,” one GOP House aide said.

The House has passed two separate bills that would replace the looming sequestration defense cuts with spending cuts in other areas, the most recent of which passed Sept. 13.

From the Republican leadership’s perspective, that puts the onus on the Senate and President Barack Obama, and it allows their Members back home to point out to voters that the House has acted.

“It has been 126 days since the president said he would veto our plan, but he has failed to put forward an alternative,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on the floor when the House passed its latest plan. “The House will act. Now we need leadership, Mr. President.”

But with Obama having quickly issued veto threats for both bills, neither are in the ballpark of a deal that both parties could sign onto.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted last week that on Wednesday alone he attended four meetings on the fiscal cliff, some of which were bipartisan. He said the discussions would continue while Congress is in recess until after the elections. And Republicans in the Senate have been meeting for months with their Democratic counterparts in an effort to break the stalemate.

While Speaker John Boehner and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) recently met with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, GOP sources say any discussions are being tightly kept at very high levels.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said the House is relatively quiet because Republicans are going to hold firm to positions they have already announced. In that sense, Democrats, particularly in the Senate, have been working diligently to push a narrative that if Obama defeats GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Republicans will need to fold on taxes, allowing rates to rise on the incomes of wealthy individuals.

But despite the noise, Norquist predicted Democrats would “fold completely like a house of cards just like they did two years ago” when Obama struck a deal for an extension of the current tax rates.

The reason? Twenty Democratic Senators are up for re-election in 2014, which would scare them off from allowing painful tax increases to go into effect.

The bipartisan discussions in the House, Norquist said, were largely “make believe.”

“There are always a bunch of guys on the Senate side who can get on TV by announcing they’re willing to be a part of the gang of whatever. Some of these guys are serial gang members. They just want to be in the room when there are television cameras there.”

Another reason commonly cited by Republicans as to why the House has been quiet is that the outcome of the November elections could change the landscape of the lame duck completely.

“You can’t begin negotiations when you don’t know who you’re going to be negotiating with,” a GOP strategist said.