WASHINGTON -- A high-stakes, multi-layered game of chicken is underway in the Capitol, as House Republicans grapple with how to handle a fiscal cliff bill sent their way by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, even while it's wildly unpopular within their conference.
A vote that had been scheduled on the bill immediately to follow a conference-wide meeting was postponed indefinitely, reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the process. Republicans emerging from the meeting said that the most likely scenario is that the House will amend the bill to add spending cuts, then send it back to the Senate.
"I'll be shocked if this isn't sent back to the Senate,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), leaving the meeting. "I don't think that's out of the realm of possibility," said a senior House GOP aide, confirmed by other high-level aides.
They'll have no difficulty making life uncomfortable for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who they blame for getting them in this mess, said one GOP source close to the situation. "He jammed the House. He's gonna get re-jammed," he said of the possibility the House amends the bill and sends it back to the Senate.
But if House Republicans think they can put the onus back on the Senate by amending the bill, they are wildly mistaken, a Democratic Senate aide involved in the talks said. "They are full of hot air. Not a chance we come back," he said.
Following the GOP meeting, Democratic and Republican leaders conferenced by phone to swap notes, trying to determine who has what votes. Democrats think they can get 140-150 members of their caucus, but are not sure that the GOP side can get enough votes to pass the Senate deal. Neither are the Republican leaders. Democrats don't want to be blamed for going over the cliff, but GOP Tea Partiers may see it as an act of courage to do so.
"It may go back with, as someone said, not a poison pill, just enough to give 'em a little heartburn and get it done," said Rep. Bob Turner (R-N.Y.)
The biggest complaint is the lack of spending cuts.
"We've got to provide responsible spending balance long-term," said Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) "This bill does not do that." Republicans who filed out of the House GOP meeting sounded cautionary notes about the fiscal cliff deal, suggesting it faces serious trouble.
House GOP sources said that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), a leader of the conservative wing and a potential threat to House Speaker John Boehner, is expected to vote against the Senate deal if it comes to the floor, breaking the leadership unity that existed around Boehner's "Plan B." And Republicans leaving the meeting said that Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Boehner's leading rival, spoke against the bill, BuzzFeed's John Stanton reported.
"Leadership is currently listening to the members so as to figure out the best path forward," Cantor spokesman Doug Heye said.
Cantor told CNN's Deirdre Walsh flatly, "I do not support the bill," and said no decisions have been made on how to proceed.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) told the National Review's Robert Costa that there are "real divisions" between Boehner and Cantor, and that Cantor was vociferous in his opposition, with the upcoming leadership elections hanging over the meeting. He said that conservatives were heartened to see Cantor take on Boehner in front of the entire conference.
Michael McAuliff, Jen Bendery, Howard Fineman, Sam Stein and Sabrina Siddiqui contributed