Given the choice between his job and his country, John Boehner chose his job. He may have lost both.
The failure of Speaker Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal for avoiding the fiscal cliff has dramatically weakened the Ohio Republican, and called into question his ability to continue on as the highest-ranking Republican in politics.
Boehner was forced to push the plan when talks with President Barack Obama broke down earlier in the week. According to Democratic sources, Boehner and Obama were close to a deal that would have cut taxes on all income less than $400,000 per year, and slowed the growth of Social Security spending. The deal fell apart when Boehner returned to the House to find that his caucus would not support it. Boehner could have violated the unwritten “Hastert Rule,” and brought the bill up for a vote anyhow, in the belief that enough Republicans would support it that it could pass with Democratic support.
Instead, Boehner rushed to save face with conservatives who were in open revolt over his willingness to work with Obama, and forced him to come up with a plan that would help him keep moving forward, and just maybe, help him keep his job.
The “Plan B” that Boehner proposed was made up of draconian cuts in aid to the needy, combined with tax policy that would have benefited the rich at the expense of the poor. Still, it did include a nominal rate increase on income greater than $1 million, allowing Republicans to argue that they had addressed some of the issues, and the ball was now in the Democrats’ court.
Unfortunately for Boehner, even this plan was unacceptable to a significant part of his caucus. With House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi denying Republicans any Democratic support for the measure, Boehner was forced to get a majority of the House out of his own caucus.
He couldn’t. A package of spending cuts designed to keep the Pentagon funded at the expense of the poor barely passed, and it soon became clear that despite earlier assurances, Boehner simply lacked the votes to get Plan B through. In a tearful address to a closed-door meeting of Republicans, Boehner recited the Serenity Prayer before announcing that he was pulling the bill from the floor, allowing it to die without the embarrassment of a floor defeat.
The decision left the House Republican Caucus in chaos. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., shouted angrily at fellow members, “Really? We can’t support our speaker?” Meanwhile, a number of conservative members skipped the caucus meeting altogether, deciding instead to go out for gumbo.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The House has recessed until after Christmas, and it’s unclear whether it will meet again before the term expires. If not, we will go over the fiscal cliff, at least for a few days, until the new Congress comes together.
Boehner, meanwhile, faces the difficult task of holding onto his gavel in the wake of the most stinging defeat of his tenure. While his most likely challenger, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., worked with him to try to get Plan B passed, there remain a number of conservatives who are interested in challenging the Speaker. It wouldn’t take much; the House elects the Speaker by majority vote. Boehner’s majority will be reduced to 234 members. It would take just 17 members defecting and refusing to vote for Boehner to keep him from being reelected on the first ballot.
Even if Boehner survives, he’s been dramatically weakened. It’s clear that he can’t deliver his caucus, and without that, a Speaker’s power is meaningless. Boehner was left to say that a solution to the fiscal cliff was now in the hands of Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. That’s pretty much right; it’s now clear that Democrats will author the plan to avert the cliff, and that Democrats in the House will work to find enough Republicans to pass it. Boehner has been sidelined.
That leaves the Republicans in a lousy position. Their highest-ranking legislative officer has been exposed as a figurehead. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can put up some road blocks, but he’s powerless to actually get legislation through his chamber. Essentially, the Republicans have forfeited their chance to influence legislation. Whether or not Boehner keeps his job, his influence in Washington is gone.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore