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Returning House Will Look to Senate for Fiscal Cliff Action

The return of the House on Sunday puts pressure on the Senate to act on legislation to avert rising tax rates and automatic spending cuts, while also keeping alive the chances that Congress and the president can pass at least a limited fix to the fiscal cliff.

GOP leaders called the House back for a session starting at 2 p.m. and votes at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, without specifying what might be voted on.

But in addition to any possible votes on the Sandy supplemental or surveillance bill, if either is passed by the Senate, the House would be in position to amend or vote on any fiscal cliff legislation the Senate could pass in the next couple of days.

After the apparent collapse of negotiations last week that left Democrats and Republicans at a seeming impasse, the move to bring the House back suggests that there are ongoing attempts to find a path to an agreement through legislative actions that would allow lawmakers to consider provisions quickly and move a package from one chamber to the other.

In a further indication there is a desire to get an agreement before the end of the year, President Barack Obama will host a meeting with the four congressional leaders at the White House on Friday to try to lay the groundwork for an agreement. Obama called the four leaders from Hawaii Wednesday night, apparently the first time he has spoken with several of them since leaving Washington late Friday clearly frustrated and suggesting Congress should take up a scaled-down solution that would push off most of the major questions into next year.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip, said Obama is involved in trying to come up with an agreement. “I don’t want to speak for the White House, but I know they are considering options,” he said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is standing by his demand that the Senate take the next step by taking up and amending House-passed legislation that would extend current tax rates.

House GOP leaders suggested the chamber would be on duty, apparently preparing to respond to any Senate action, right up to the end of the 112th Congress. “The House may be in session through Wednesday, Jan. 2,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a notice. “As a reminder, the 113th Congress will convene at noon on Thursday, Jan. 3.”

Republican aides indicated privately that Boehner, who pulled his own “plan B” from House consideration, does not envision introducing new legislation to extend expiring tax cuts and replace the automatic spending cuts that make up the fiscal cliff. As a result, the purpose of the House’s return is apparently to be in position to act on Senate legislation. A GOP aide said no agreement has been reached between congressional leaders and the president on how to proceed with fiscal cliff legislation.

Boehner reiterated his insistence that the Senate act during a call with House GOP members Thursday afternoon. Noting the House passed legislation earlier this year that would extend all tax rates at current levels and replace the sequester with longer-range cuts to mandatory spending programs, Boehner said, “If the Senate will not approve these bills and send them to the president to be signed into law in their current form, they must be amended and returned to the House,” according to a person who was on the call.

Boehner told GOP members that after the Senate has acted on the bills, “the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments. The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass — but the Senate must act.”

Democrats, however, say Boehner is dragging out negotiations for political reasons.

“It’s obvious what’s going on,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on the floor Thursday. “He’s waiting until Jan. 3 to get re-elected to speaker because he has so many people over there that won’t follow what he wants. That’s obvious from the debacle that took place last week,” he said. He was referring to Boehner’s decision to pull legislation that would have extended tax cuts for most taxpayers but allowed rates to rise for those who earn more than $1 million per year. The legislation was withdrawn after it became clear it did not have enough GOP support to pass the House.

It’s unclear whether the House would approve legislation sent over by the Senate, since the details of such a bill are undetermined. Hoyer expressed confidence the House would pass a measure extending tax rates for individual income below $200,000 since, he said, almost every lawmaker wants to prevent a tax increase on “average, working Americans.”

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