GOP "doomsday" plan: vote "present" on middle-class tax rate extension

I mentioned last week that Republicans had one option to extricate themselves politically from a collapse of the fiscal-cliff talks, which was to just give Obama a House vote on exactly he wants — and then vote “present” to allow it to pass.  ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports that House Republicans are considering a limited version of that option, focusing only on extending the middle-class tax rates and nothing more:

Republicans are seriously considering a Doomsday Plan if fiscal cliff talks collapse entirely.  It’s quite simple:  House Republicans would allow a vote on extending the Bush middle class tax cuts (the bill passed in August by the Senate) and offer the President nothing more:  no extension of the debt ceiling, nothing on unemployment, nothing on closing loopholes.  Congress would recess for the holidays and the president would face a big battle early in the year over the debt ceiling.

Two senior Republican elected officials tell me this doomsday plan is becoming the most likely scenario.  A top GOP House  leadership aide confirms the plan is under consideration, but says Speaker Boehner has made no decision on whether to pursue it.

Under one variation of this Doomsday Plan, House Republicans would allow a vote on extending only the middle class tax cuts and Republicans, to express disapproval at the failure to extend all tax cuts, would vote “present” on the bill, allowing it to pass entirely on Democratic votes.

By doing this, Republicans avoid taking blame for tax increases on 98 percent of income tax payers.  As one senior Republican in Congress told me, “You don’t take a hostage you aren’t willing to shoot.”  Republicans aren’t willing to kill the middle class tax cuts, even if extending them alone will make it harder to later extend tax cuts on the wealthy.

I’m not sure what a “present” vote gains Republicans if they only hold a vote on the tax rates.  I’d assume that the House GOP wants to get some credit for keeping middle-class tax rates at their current level, as well as for the AMT fix that will keep millions of us from falling into the vise of a program originally intended to do what Warren Buffett urges us to do again — demand more money from the rich.  It seems to me that the House GOP can vote to pass this bill tomorrow without explicitly violating their tax pledge, and still use the debt ceiling for another round of fiscal-cliff negotiations.

Of course, the Senate might not pass such a bill without any other issues addressed in it.  That, however, puts the onus on Harry Reid, who would then be seen as the man holding the middle class hostage to get his wish list passed.  That’s also true if House Democrats surprise the GOP and fail to vote for the bill if Boehner has his caucus vote “present.”    Obama would almost have to sign such a bill if it passed out of Congress, given his own rhetoric about Republican hostage-taking and the middle-class tax rates — but why not have Republicans force that issue by voting in favor of it?

The true doomsday option, other than flying off the fiscal cliff like Thelma and Louise, would be to pass Obama’s latest offer through a House vote where Republicans vote “present.”  The negative impact those policies have on the economy would be completely owned by Obama and Democrats.  That would create a lot of pain and economic damage that could be mitigated by good-faith negotiation between the parties, but if Democrats refuse to engage in such, then the political options are all that remain for the GOP.