WASHINGTON -- With President Barack Obama back in Washington on Thursday, cutting short his Hawaii vacation to deal with the looming fiscal cliff crisis, the most important question is not over taxes and spending.
The first and most important hurdle: Is House Speaker John Boehner willing to call a vote on a deal negotiated between House and Senate GOP and Democratic leaders and Obama -- a deal that does not have the majority support of the GOP members of the House?
The House speaker has the power to call bills for a vote. Boehner -- with a few exceptions -- operates by what is known here as the "Hastert Rule," named for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who ran the House between 1999 and 2007.
Under the "Hastert Rule," in order for a measure to advance, it must have the support of the majority of the majority of the members of the House. Hastert discussed his governing principles in a Nov. 12, 2003, speech at the Library of Congress.
"My fifth principle is to please the majority of the majority," Hastert said. "The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority. . . . On each piece of legislation, I actively seek to bring our party together. I do not feel comfortable scheduling any controversial legislation unless I know we have the votes on our side first."
Boehner last week violated the Hastert Rule when he announced a vote for his "Plan B" fiscal cliff backup plan. He never brought his legislation to the floor for a vote because a rump group of about 20 hard-core anti-tax GOP lawmakers would not back his proposal, which would have let tax rates rise on the few hundred thousand earners in the U.S. with household income over $1 million.
Under a deadline imposed by Congress, a series of tax hikes and spending cuts starts to kick in if lawmakers do not act by Dec. 31. Obama campaigned on letting taxes go up for households making more than $250,000; he said he could go with a $400,000 level.
This lame-duck session of Congress has 241 Republicans and 191 Democrats with three vacancies, including the seat of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Under this configuration, it takes 217 votes to get a measure passed. The House has passed two bills to avoid the fiscal cliff -- they were with GOP votes only -- but they had no chance of getting Senate approval.
The Senate -- under rules that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to change -- needs a supermajority of 60 votes to pass anything, which means the majority Democrats have to woo some GOP support to get anything done.
With only a few days left, Boehner's threshold decision is whether to allow House members to vote on a measure negotiated between all the parties -- but would only pass with the help of Democratic votes. That decision trumps everything else on the table right now.
The Senate is back from Christmas break on Thursday. Boehner told members he would give them a 48-hour notice to return, which means the earliest anything can happen is Saturday.
On Wednesday afternoon, Boehner and the other GOP House leaders said in a statement that the "Senate first must act" even as the lines of communication remain open."
Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley told me Wednesday that for the first time, he can see Congress so frozen lawmakers run out the clock, "and I never would have said that before."
A new survey by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, found that 79 percent of those polled want lawmakers in Congress to work together to get things done.
That's the majority of the majority.