WASHINGTON — The stunning collapse of Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” fiscal cliff gambit threw efforts to avert a fiscal and economic crisis into chaos and raised fundamental questions about the Republican leader's control of his conference.
Boehner had hoped his Plan B, which included a package of spending cuts and tax increases on those making $1 million or more a year, could give him more leverage in his negotiations with President Barack Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But the lack of support for the bill became clear earlier in the evening when a package of spending cuts designed to sweeten Plan B barely passed the House on a 215 to 209 vote, with one member voting present.
If Congress does not fix the fiscal cliff before Jan. 1, a series of massive tax increases on all Americans and a set of deep spending cuts will go into effect, a scenario that economists have warned could have dire economic consequences for the nation.
Plan B’s final death throes came just minutes into a hastily called evening meeting of Boehner’s conference. According to a House Republican aide, the meeting was called not to shore up support for Plan B; rather, it was held to inform members that the support was not there.
Just minutes into the meeting, the door burst open and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, surrounded by a wall of aides, hurried out. He did not comment to reporters before he walked into an office and closed the door.
After Cantor left the meeting, Rep. Mike Kelly yelled loudly at his colleagues, attempting to rally them around Boehner. But according to Republicans in the room, the outcome was already clear. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy just shook his head, telling the room the votes simply weren’t there.
A short time later, Boehner exited an elevator onto the first floor of the Capitol.
When asked about the meeting by BuzzFeed, Boehner said simply, "It went well."
If he thought that, he was the only one.
Reps. Tom Price and Paul Ryan, key conservative figures, were downbeat as they walked through the first floor a short time later.
"You're confusing me for someone who's commenting," Ryan said, deflecting questions with a recycled line.
Price echoed the sentiment. "Put me in the no comment camp.”
One source explained that while members appeared sympathetic to Boehner’s efforts, they were adamant that they wouldn’t go along with the Kabuki theater the plan entailed — passing a measure that Obama would reject; sending it to the Senate to reduce the income levels of tax increases from $1 million to something closer to $500,000 or $600,000 a year; and then re-passing the bill in the House, this time with Democratic support.
The source said that a number of lawmakers told Boehner bluntly: “If this was the final deal, I’d be there for you. But the Senate’s not going to pass it.”
When asked what the next step was in the talks, a leadership aide would only say, “It’s unclear.”
Republicans were, at least officially, trying to put the best spin possible on the collapse. For instance, in a statement released by his office, Boehner sought to pin the responsibility for averting the fiscal cliff on Obama and Senate Majority Harry Reid alone.
“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass. Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff,” Boehner said.
The White House, meanwhile, issued a terse statement from Jay Carney that avoided any gloating and instead focused on the administration’s hope to still work out a final bipartisan agreement.
“The president’s main priority is to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses in just a few short days. 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,” Carney said.
How Boehner will respond to this latest breakdown within his conference is unclear. In similar situations in the past — most notably during the government shutdown fight in 2011 and the unemployment insurance fight that dragged into early January, Boehner was able to successfully navigate the difficult political waters of the Republican conference.
But each time has become increasingly difficult, and Thursday’s embarrassing breakdown raises serious questions about Boehner’s relationship with his conference.
Boehner remains well liked — following the meeting, one member who has long been a thorn in his side said he “really feels for the Speaker” — and several Republicans stressed that there was no anger towards the Ohio Republican during the meeting.
Virtually no one in Republican or conservative circles sees a viable challenge to his speakership — the only figure in the conference who could realistically challenge him at this point is likely Rep. Paul Ryan, who is extremely close to the Speaker.
But at the same time, it is also clear that his members simply do not fear him, despite his recent decision to punish a handful of wayward Republicans for breaking ranks too often.
Institutionalists in his party have for much of the last two years pleaded with Boehner to take a firmer hand with members who were unwilling to fall into line when needed, arguing that the constant brinksmanship their resistance had caused was hurting the Republican brand and would ultimately undermine his ability to enforce discipline on the conference when needed.
Although Boehner resisted those demands, earlier this month he took his first significant step in trying to curb chronic opposition, stripping the committee assignments of four members who have consistently voted against leadership or have caused general heartburn for Boehner’s team.
But instead of cowing those members, it has only emboldened them for the most part, and as Thursday night’s collapse showed, it has done little to strike fear into the hearts of other members thinking of breaking ranks.
Boehner’s leadership team, in particular Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, has also found itself hamstrung by the lack of earmarks. Traditionally the carrot used to bring along members to take tough votes, their absence has made the process of whipping the conference exponentially more difficult.
The question now is how Boehner responds.
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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