At a certain level, it may seem hard to believe the Republican-led House would kill a bipartisan fiscal compromise that passed the Senate with 89 votes, including 40 of the Senate's 46 GOP members. Indeed, why in the world would House Republicans want to be on the hook for destroying the agreement and causing a middle-class tax hike?
But it's important to remember that organized nihilists running part of the government are capable of unexpected actions.
House Republicans reacted with anger Tuesday afternoon to a Senate-passed plan to head off automatic tax increases and spending cuts, putting the fate of the legislation in doubt just hours after it appeared Congress was nearing a resolution of the fiscal crisis.
Lawmakers said that Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican, indicated to his colleagues in a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol that he could not support the legislation in its current form.
Cantor's stated opposition caught many off guard. It's not that he's breaking publicly with the Speaker, exactly -- John Boehner has committed to bringing the bill to the floor, but hasn't publicly stated an opinion on its merits -- but the Majority Leader's position still carries real weight. When he balks, it stands to reason he's going to take a whole lot of votes with him.
A specific House GOP strategy has not yet taken shape, but Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) said he'd be "shocked" if the House didn't try to amend the Biden/McConnell deal, make it more right-wing, and then sent it "back to the Senate."
Of course, if the House fails to pass the Senate version as-is, the entire package will unravel, the process will start all over again in the new Congress, and the economic consequences would start to kick in.
All of this, as a practical matter, opens the door to a series of possible outcomes.
Scenario #1: House Republicans are just blowing off some steam this afternoon, but they'll eventually realize they have limited options, bite the bullet, and pass the deal with some Democratic votes.
Scenario #2: The vast majority of House Republicans will balk, but the chamber won't want to be blamed for destroying everything, so a sliver of the caucus will join Democrats and grudgingly pass the package. This will raise questions anew about John Boehner's career, and turn up the volume on scuttlebutt about Cantor running for the Speaker's gavel this week.
Scenario #3: House Republicans will amend the Senate deal, make it more Tea Party-friendly, and demand that the Senate approve their new version. This will necessarily force the entire process to collapse.
Scenario #4: House Republicans will pass two bills, the Senate's bipartisan agreement as-is, and a separate bill filled with spending cuts. The Senate would ignore the second bill, but it might make the House GOP feel better about itself.
Scenario #5: House Republicans will kill the Senate bill, there will be an enormous political freak out, and there will be hell to pay at the start of the new Congress.
Which one of these scenarios is likely to happen? Your guess is as good as mine.
Keep one other angle to this in mind: the House is taking up a bill it had nothing to do with. After House Republicans balked at every possible alternative, including their own Speaker's fallback plan, Boehner deliberately took his entire chamber out of the process, asking the Senate to do all of the work, and promising to bring their resolution to the House floor. The lower chamber knew all along that it would basically have to vote up or down on whatever compromise the Senate worked out.
And as of this afternoon, the outcome is far from clear.
Update: Just as a fun thought experiment, consider what this process might look like if the Speaker of the House were a strong leader with some shred of influence over his own caucus. It's easy to take it for granted, because we've become so accustomed to it over the last two years, but Boehner is weak in ways that have no modern precedent; he has effectively no control in his own chamber; and from an institutional/structural perspective, the Speaker's fecklessness leads to important consequences, as we're seeing today.
Second Update: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has endorsed the Senate deal and says a "strong majority" of House Democrats will vote for it if the agreement reaches the House floor. It suggests the package will probably pass and become law if Boehner ignores the arbitrary, so-called "Hastert Rule," and lets the House vote up or down on the bill.