Plan B was supposed to have been John Boehner’s masterstroke — and the only legislative tactic protecting him from an embarrassing defeat in fiscal cliff negotiations with President Obama.
But late Thursday, after a brief but contentious meeting with his conference, he announced he’d gambled and lost.
“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass,” Boehner official statement read. “Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the January 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation’s crippling debt. The Senate must now act.”
His statement leaves him little room for further negotiations with Democratic leaders, and presumes to leave responsibility for avoiding the fiscal cliff in their hands. But despite addressing Harry Reid and Obama so combatively, Boehner’s antics this week have weakened his position in budget negotiations and constitute the most tumultuous moment of his rocky speakership.
Plan B was originally conceived as a full, clean extension of the Bush tax cuts for all income up to $1 million — an attempt to extract further tax and spending concessions from President Obama by eliminating the public perception that Republicans were prepared to take the country over the fiscal cliff to protect millionaires and billionaires from higher taxes.
But the fatal conceit of Plan B was Boehner’s expectation that 218 members of his restive conference would vote to effectively increase taxes on the wealthy, even incrementally, for any reason — let alone as a symbolic exercise meant to grease what they view as a misguided effort to cut a budget deal with President Obama.
His problems began to mount late Wednesday, when it became clear that conservative members would not support the plan without changes. To cajole them, he promised to twin plan B with a vote on separate legislation to cut spending from programs for the poor, meant to defer defense and domestic spending cuts set to take effect early next year.
It wasn’t nearly enough enticement. House Republicans were happy to vote for safety net cuts, but that had no bearing on their willingness to vote for an unconnected tax increase on high earners.
So what happens now?
Boehner has two problems: one with President Obama and another with his conference. And to the extent that he meliorates one he exacerbates the other. He can return to fiscal cliff negotiations with an empowered Obama, and try to eke out the sort of deal he just rejected, then pass it through the House next week, on a bipartisan basis at but a huge risk to his Speakership.
That’s the course he told members he’d pursue in the conference meeting Thursday night.
And the White House is open to it. “The President’s main priority is to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney. “The President will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy.”
It sets up a scenario where Boehner’s old nemesis Nancy Pelosi is suddenly back in the driver’s seat, controlling the votes necessary to pass a deal.
But if a last ditch effort fails, or he chooses to rebuff Obama, he’ll set one of two unpredictable chains of events into motion.
He can still bring Senate-passed legislation to the floor, which would lock in the Bush tax cuts for income up to $250,000. That bill would face stiff resistance from many corners of his conference, but would likely pass with overwhelming Democratic support. it would leave unresolved issues like the sequester, Medicare physician reimbursement, expiring emergency unemployment benefits, annual appropriations, and the debt ceiling. And it would still leave him wounded leader, in a tough spot with his members.
Or he could turn toward the cliff, take the country over, try to breathe life back into his speakership, and grapple with the messy consequences next year.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.