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Behind the Scenes: Last Night's Meltdown

Two groups are elated over the sudden and dramatic demise of John Boehner's "Plan B" in the House of Representatives last night: Liberals -- who are thrilled to see their opponents in utter shambles -- and hardline conservatives, who view the development as a principled victory and a much-needed rebuke of the GOP's weak-kneed leadership.  National Review Washington Editor Robert Costa was on the Hill during the collapse, and filed a must-read story about how it all went down.  In short, a demoralized Boehner stunned the caucus with a brusque announcement that he was pulling the bill.  The Speaker's tone triggered a round of acrimonious recriminations among his shell-shocked members.  A hot mess:


At a quarter to 8 p.m. on Thursday night, House Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement for an urgent, closed-door conference meeting. The scene was hushed and confused. Instead of huddling in a windowless room, members thought they’d spend the evening on the House floor, voting on “Plan B,” Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff proposal. But as they took their seats and looked at Boehner’s face, the reason for the gathering became clear: The speaker didn’t have the votes. The whipping was over. “Plan B” was dead. 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 frustration spilled over late into the evening, as a fractured caucus slowly retreated from the Capitol.  Even some Boehner opponents began questioning the wisdom of their momentary achievement:

Upstairs by the House floor, which was now closed after Boehner’s announcement, a handful of senior members discussed the whip count. They decided to go out for drinks near Union Station, in order to avoid their colleagues who’d be hanging at the Capitol Hill Club on the House side. “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. Aides to House leaders stayed later than their bosses, talking to reporters and trying to spin the collapse of “Plan B” as something better than a complete failure. As the clock neared 9 p.m., they tried mightily to project strength, but the energy among all Republicans, members and staffers, was sapped. There were no upbeat talking points, no chummy gaggle. This is a talkative bunch of people, but on this dreary night, not so much.  


Ed Morrissey wonders what Plan C might look like at this stage.  Plan A, remember, is a deal between Obama and Boehner.  This option remains within the realm of possibility, but Boehner's leverage is basically shot to pieces now.  A last-minute bargain will almost certainly be more unappetizing to conservatives than Plan B ever was.  Some people are arguing that House Republicans' rejection of Plan B actually strengthens Boehner's hand because it clearly demonstrates that Republicans are serious about rejecting tax rate increases.  But does anyone believe Obama will respond to this outcome by saying, "you're right -- let's move in your direction"?  Not a chance.  He'll say, "John, you can't even control your own team.  That's not my problem, it's yours, and now any deal is going to have to rely on House Democrat votes.  Oh, and we have discipline."  To which Boehner can retort...what, exactly?  The other primary possibility is that we all go over the cliff together.  The markets will respond very unfavorably, and the Democrat/media complex will see to it that every American hears that his or her taxes are heading north because Republicans couldn't resolve their internal brawl over raising rates on "millionaires and billionaires."  Though Democrats bear primary responsibility for this mess (due to their serial budgetary abdications), the prevailing narrative faults the GOP.  Against that backdrop, Democrats will undertake a full court press to pass a bill cutting the rates back down for everyone below the $250,000 mark, and might even load up their bill with additional liberal wish-list items.  The pressure to buckle will be enormous, and it will likely succeed.  The Republican defection parade will commence.  An added bonus to this contingency?  President Bush's middle class tax cuts -- which many on the Left wouldn't even acknowledge during his presidency -- will suddenly become the Obama middle class tax cuts, with the bulk of opposition coming from the Right.  That's not just a tactical disaster; it's a lasting body-blow to the Republican brand.  

Three more potential scenarios:  (1) House leadership quietly takes the temperature of the caucus once everyone returns from Christmas break, to see if opposition to Plan B has softened.  If so, they lock down a hard vote count, and possibly proceed to a vote.  (2) Boehner moves forward with a modified Plan B, perhaps with a lower threshold, in an attempt to peel off some Democrats.  But do rank-and-file Dems have any incentive to help bail him out, especially if the proposal falls short of what they believe they'll get in January? (3) The GOP could attempt some variant of the "vote present/doomsday" plan, wherein they put Obama's full plan (maybe stripped of the debt ceiling power grab) up for a vote in the House, then vote present en masse.  Would Democrats take the bait and provide the votes to pass it?  Harry Reid's already squelched a vote on Obama's proposal in the Senate.  I'd bet Pelosi would instruct her side to vote no, prolonging the stalemate.  Republicans could then argue that Congressional Democrats in both houses have been presented with an opportunity to pass the president's plan virtually in toto, but have refused.  This could potentially provide a narrative-shifter for the GOP, but it would require relentless and disciplined messaging.  Is today's Republican Party capable of such things?  Bear in mind that they'd be trying to build this case during the week between Christmas and New Year's, with the entire country already sick to death of the fiscal cliff.  Parting thought: Could Boehner even be counted on to ensure that his members would vote "present," instead of "no," in the doomsday scheme?  


UPDATE - Here's Mitch McConnell doing his best:

He's absolutely right, but hasn't he heard?  The new rules of politics dictate that Democrats' behavior and words don't matter.


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