NRO’s Robert Costa was on the Hill last night, watching as disaster unfolded for John Boehner on the House floor. All day long, House GOP leadership predicted a close but successful vote in forcing the Senate to reject a plan that raised taxes on millionaires while keeping rates at current levels for everyone else. But when a vote to replace the sequester ended up a lot closer than GOP whips had predicted, Boehner understood that the writing was on the wall for his Plan B political strategy.
When Boehner threw in the towel, though, even his critics in the caucus were stunned:
Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling. He didn’t want to fight. There was no name-calling. As a devout Roman Catholic, Boehner wanted to pray. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he told the crowd, according to attendees.
There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”
Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited the room.
It’s not just Boehner allies who may end up regretting the failure:
“I don’t want to talk to the people who ruined this, at least right now,” a retiring House member told me. “They don’t get it.” Another senior member told me that Boehner was always going to struggle with the whip count since most House conservatives have little interest in seeing the speaker strike any kind of deal. “Boehner was trying to play chess and the caucus was playing checkers,” he said, sighing. “Boehner is willing to lose a pawn for a queen. I’m not sure about the rest.”
Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, a conservative with libertarian leanings, was stunned. As he walked back to his office, he said the episode was unfortunate, even though he was planning to vote against the measure. For the past month, since House leaders booted him off the budget committee, he has been railing against Boehner for his management style. But even Amash wondered whether the House GOP was making the right move. “Too many people in there were arguing that this thing is a tax increase, and I don’t think that’s what Boehner was trying to do,” he said. As much as he disagrees with Boehner’s approach, even he regretted how the speaker’s plan was killed.
Be sure to read it all. While Boehner came under considerable heat for this strategy, he’s playing a losing hand overall anyway. Plan B wouldn’t have even gotten a Senate vote, but neither will any bill pushed by the conservative wing, either. Plan B would have at least given Republicans some measure of political cover to insist that they weren’t blocking middle-class tax stability, especially since the bill that Boehner pulled would have addressed tax rates separately, as well as the AMT patch. And if by chance the Senate felt forced to take it up and pass it, the bill would have left the debt limit as a big bargaining chip for February without keeping most taxpayers hostage.
Instead, Boehner lost control of the caucus, and with it any juice Boehner might have now or in February. That’s Boehner’s fault in large measure, too; he shouldn’t have gone to the floor without knowing he could get enough support to pass the bill. But the failure of this measure makes it very easy for Democrats and the media to paint the House GOP as so resistant to new revenues that they’re willing to obstruct tax relief for over 99% of the country, even though Democrats had said they wouldn’t pass it.
Will this push us over the fiscal cliff? I will have a few thoughts on that later.