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House Still in Wait-And-See Mode

With just days to go before Congress reaches the fiscal cliff, the top four House Republican leaders and their aides held a remote conference call Wednesday to touch base after the holidays.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Conference Chairwoman-elect Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., were the only members on the call, according to GOP aides.

The call itself is not unusual, since the leadership team regularly speaks by phone without the conference as a whole on the line. But the call is the first step to determining when, or indeed if, the House returns as the 112th Congress and how leadership will proceed in attempting to avert the fiscal cliff.

Leadership has pledged to give members 48 hours notice before calling them back to Washington, D.C., from their districts. Since leadership has not yet issued the notice, the House is not likely to reconvene until at least the weekend. Aside from the fiscal cliff, the House still has other unfinished business, such as the farm bill and a supplemental spending bill related to Superstorm Sandy, unless they decide to pass them by unanimous consent or recess and take measures up in the 113th Congress.

In the meantime, all eyes are on the Senate. House Republicans are waiting to see what fiscal cliff plan Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada decides to bring up in that chamber.

“Lines of communication are open, but — for the time being — we will take a look at whatever Senate Democrats produce,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.

The four House Republican leaders on the conference call issued a statement late in the afternoon reaffirming their commitment to waiting for the Senate to act: “The House has acted on two bills which collectively would avert the entire fiscal cliff if enacted. Those bills await action by the Senate. If the Senate will not approve and send them to the president to be signed into law in their current form, they must be amended and returned to the House. Once this has occurred, the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments.”

Senate Democrats were unimpressed with the House GOP leaders’ statement. A Reid spokesman said the House should instead move a Senate-passed bill that would preserve tax cuts for family incomes under $250,000 but let tax rises on income above that. “Right now, the Senate bill is the only bill that can become law, and House Republicans owe it to middle class families to let it pass with Democratic and Republican votes,” the spokesman said. Boehner rejected such an approach as recently as Friday, saying the Senate bill had a blue-slip problem. That is a reference to the constitutional requirement that measures having to do with revenue originate in the House.

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