The 3 Key Votes That Could Make or Break a Fiscal-Cliff Deal

It's all going to come down to just how nervous the less senior members of the House are about facing primary challenges in the most conservative districts.

The happy couple, back in the spotlight. (The Atlantic/Reuters)

I was speaking informally with a rather cynical senior Democratic congressional aide recently about the prospect of a fiscal cliff deal before the holidays, which he deemed unlikely, and asked him to send along his thoughts to share with you, dear readers. He turned out to be a bit less cynical upon reflection, and offered up this catalog of three different votes that will matter most as Republicans in the House consider a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff. Here it is:

In a democracy, in the end, it all comes down to the votes. We may spend all our time debating process, policy and punditry, but hey -- at some point you have to cast your ballots and come up with 50 percent plus one.

If Congress is to fix the Fiscal Cliff during the lame duck session, there are three votes that matter. The first is the requirement for Speaker Boehner to get "the majority of the majority" of his House Republican caucus to support the deal. The second is the vote on final passage in the House. And while the final vote won't happen until 2014, the specter of primary challenges to Republicans who vote in favor of a final deal now make the prospected of votes against them then a real player in considerations on the Hill.

Boehner's first challenge is to round up about 150 Republicans to support a deal that will include new revenue. He knows he will lose 60-80 of his most conservative members, so he's going to have to lean pretty hard on the rest of his caucus. And of course, losing 60-80 members of his caucus means he will have to have Democratic support to pass a final bill. If this all sounds familiar, it should. Boehner faced the same dynamic during the government shutdown battle in the spring of 2011 and the debt limit fight that followed that summer.

Those looking for an optimistic ending to the Fiscal Cliff should note that Boehner delivered the votes he needed both times, despite plenty of speculation that he would fall short. However, neither of those votes required raising revenue -- they were both all about cutting spending, which is pretty clearly in the Republican wheelhouse. And yet both bills faced fierce opposition for not cutting enough.

It seems safe to assume that the Republican Study Committee will not be silent on a Fiscal Cliff package that is balanced enough to attract the necessary Democratic support to pass the House. So once a deal is struck, it will have to thread the needle of reforming entitlements enough to satisfy the conservative need for a pound of spending flesh, while also raising enough revenue to satisfy the Democrat's promise to increase taxes on the wealthy. I think we can all agree this will be challenging, but not impossible. (For what happens when Boehner can't thread the needle, please see: Farm Bill, The.) But if such a package is assembled, it will pass the second test -- final passage in the House. And that gets us past this crisis and on to immigration reform!

Eventually, we will arrive at the final votes that matter for this crisis -- those of Republican primary voters. What will happen to Republicans who vote in favor of the deal? On the one hand, if the deal gives industry the confidence to stop hoarding cash and start investing again, it would seem likely that in 18 months, the economy will be growing at a better pace than today, and a stronger economy is always good for incumbents. And, traditionally, a stronger economy will weaken a movement (the Tea Party) that was founded in the midst of a terrible recession.

On the other hand, breaking the Republican orthodoxy of "no new taxes" would seem to be a risky move for any elected official from a conservative district. And gerrymandering has created a LOT of very conservative districts.

So vote number three brings us back to vote number one -- the one that requires a majority of the majority in Boehner's caucus. The fate of a Fiscal Cliff deal during the lame duck will probably rest with the "middle 80," the rank-and-file Republican members who have not accrued gavels or years of service, and who would be the most vulnerable to primary challenges.

Will these Republicans take what is sure to be one of the toughest votes of their time in Washington? Or will they stick with Grover, Rush and the Club for Growth and decide that no deal is better than a tough deal?

So far, Speaker Boehner is two for two. The third time will take quite some charm.