WASHINGTON - Capitol Hill is a confusing place these days. Hearings and votes are underway even in this lame duck Congress, but most members recognize the actual purpose is to keep them in town in case a deal is struck on the fiscal cliff so they can be around to vote on it.
Members from both parties are trying to draw lines in the sand, hoping to influence negotiations by making it clear to the President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that some significant faction of House members will help vote down any deal that doesn't meet their demands.
Among them is Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison. He says if the reports are true and Obama is considering adopting a different inflation indexing method for Social Security, known as chained CPI, that will lead to lower payments for beneficiaries, he and 100-odd liberal Democrats won't vote for an agreement.
"It isn't necessary, it's unfair and it's cruel," said Ellison of the chained CPI proposal. "[Obama's] best effort at a negotiation doesn't obligate me to share in undermining the economic sustainability of low income seniors and people with disabilities."
Not all Democrats are as insistent as Ellison. U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who represents southern Minnesota, said that while he's far from enthusiastic about the chained CPI proposal, he would consider it in the context of an agreement that raised sufficient revenue from higher taxes, in the order of the $1.2 trillion over the next decade that Obama is now asking for.
Meanwhile, Republicans are planning to vote Thursday on a "Plan B" hatched by Boehner in an attempt to shake up negotiations with Obama and unite a fractured GOP caucus.
The plan involves allowing tax rates to rise for those making more than $1 million while extending the Bush-era tax cuts for those making less. Obama and congressional Democrats want to see tax hikes for those making more than $250,000, although the president's latest offer raised that threshold to $400,000.
Obama has already threatened to veto the Boehner bill were it to arrive on his desk, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, says the measure can't pass his chamber.
While Boehner's move is being interpreted as a sign that talks are breaking down, Second District U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican, says the Plan B bill could also become the legislative vehicle for a final agreement that the Senate could amend with its own offer and send back to the House for another vote.
"That's how this process works, the bill may move back and forth once or twice or not all," said Kline. "We'll have to wait and see."
But many members are frustrated to be sitting on the sidelines, especially when lawmakers have understood for many months the economic consequences of the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts they voted into law last year.
"The sad part about this was that we had numerous weeks when we could have been working and we weren't," said Walz.
Many members acknowledge that whatever the final agreement might be, it's going to disappoint some of their supporters.
"When we talk to our constituents, they will say, 'why can't you guys just agree and get a deal?'" said Kline. "Then in almost the same breath, [they say] 'but don't raise my taxes, or don't eliminate my deduction or program.'"
Also looming over the talks is the fear, especially for Republicans, that their vote on any agreement will become primary campaign fodder for future opponents. Walz said he's had many private conversations with House Republicans in the gym and on the floor where he's acknowledged the risk of inspiring a primary challenger by voting for a deal.
"I understand you're going to have to take a vote that may get you primaried," said Walz, recounting the conversations. "If you're going to craft something that gets me primaried but it fixes the economy, bring it forward and let's go off this thing together if that's what it takes."