WASHINGTON - The dizzying, budgetary roller coaster ride careened closer to the "fiscal cliff" this week when House Speaker John Boehner tossed a new Plan B into negotiations with the White House.
Just when it seemed Boehner and President Obama were nearing a deal, the speaker changed course, voicing doubts a full package could be worked out in time before the January 1 deadline.
That's when a combustible combination of higher taxes and sweeping automatic defense and domestic spending cuts will send the economy into a recession, economists say.
Boehner's eleventh hour rescue plan would permanently extend virtually all of the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush for all households under $1 million. That includes reigning in the punishing alternative minimum tax and retaining the lower tax rate on inherited estates.
"I believe it's important we protect as many American taxpayers as we can. And our Plan B would protect American taxpayers who make a million dollars or less and have all of their current rates extended," Boehner told reporters after closed door meetings with his House GOP caucus.
Was this an insurance policy move by Boehner and his leaders to blunt a likely White House offensive that would blame Republicans if a compromise isn't reached before year's end? Or a daring move to demonstrate his political strength in the GOP House to extract deeper concessions from Obama?
To many House Republican veterans who have fought over countless negotiated legislative deals before, he was playing both strategies at once.
It was a high wire act by a cunning legislative strategist who has gone toe-to-toe with Obama many times before, only to walk away from a deal his party could not accept. He believes a deal can still be worked out, but that the White House needs to be convinced that only a tougher package can win House passage -- one with no increase in tax rates below $1 million at a time when the economy remains sluggish and full time jobs are in short supply.
Boehner pulled out his back-up plan at mid-week after both sides had moved the needle toward a deal. But then the talks stalled over deeper spending cuts the speaker sought, and other complicated tax matters. GOP leaders feared there was little or no time to construct a full-blown trillion dollar-plus deal over a raft of fiendishly complex issues that cannot be fully resolved in less than 12 days.
Ordinarily, fiscal fights take months to wind their way through a fierce gantlet of committees, subcommittees, countless votes, and endless conference committee deal-making before a bill reaches the floor for final passage.