Had there been a vote on Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” to avert the so-called US fiscal cliff on Thursday night, it would not have been close. He was probably 40 to 50 votes short of the number he needed to avoid a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own party, according to rough estimates from Republican members of Congress and staff members.
It was not for lack of effort. Boehner and his two top deputies, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, along with other House Republican leaders, tried for three days to muster support for the measure, which would have cut government spending and raised taxes on millionaires to head off across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts set for January.
They failed for a variety of reasons, according to interviews. Chief among them was this: They were asking anti-tax conservatives to take a big risk for no discernable reward. Plan B, as Boehner named his alternative to US President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on earnings of US$400,000 a year and above, would never become law because the Democratic-controlled Senate would not pass it. Nor was it likely to put pressure on Obama to reach a deal, as Boehner intended.
Indeed, based on interviews with Republican members of Congress and some of their staffers, the wonder is not that Plan B crashed and burned, but that Boehner apparently thought — and announced in advance — that it would fly.
For Republican members of Congress like John Fleming, it was kind of mystifying. Fleming, of Louisiana, said he was getting e-mails from people who raise money for campaigns saying: “’If you support tax increases without significant cuts ... don’t even bother to call me.’ The conservatives and donor class have laid the gauntlet down. They get that their taxes may go up, but they don’t think that there is any reason to make that kind of sacrifice as government spending goes up.”
With Senate Democrats and Obama making clear that they would not go along with Boehner’s Plan B, Fleming said: “Why would we put ourselves on record” in favor of “raising taxes for a bill that’s not going to become law?”
Boehner had talked with members one-on-one in his Capitol office, on the telephone and on the floor of the House.
“He told them: ‘This is important ... This will empower our position ... this will put Democrats in a difficult position,’” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership whose job it was to argue Boehner’s case.
Fleming, a supporter of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, said that McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, contacted him to find out why he was opposing the leadership.
“He asked me why I was voting [no,]” Fleming said. “I gave him my interpretation. He listened very patiently. He came back with a couple of responses. At the end he had to admit some of my points were good points, that this bill would not do some of the things that needed to be done.”
Dozens of members convinced themselves that Boehner’s bill amounted to a tax hike despite evidence to the contrary, Cole said.
Boehner and Cantor publicly voiced confidence on Thursday that they could gather enough votes to pass the bill. “I never saw a football coach who went into a game saying ‘We are going to lose,’” Cole said.
With the start of the vote set for 7:30pm on Thursday, Boehner made the decision at about 7pm after it was clear that they would fall 40 to 50 votes short of the needed 217 for passage.
If the gap had only been four or five votes, Boehner and his team would have kept pushing, pressing, making their case.
Boehner decided to make the announcement at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans in a room in the basement of the Capitol.
With Cantor at his side Boehner delivered a short statement.
“He said something that I thought was profound,” Fleming said. “Basically, he said the collective wisdom of two people locked in a room can never be as high or as great as the collective wisdom of 535 individuals,” the combined membership of the House and Senate.
Then, Fleming said, Boehner declared: “‘We don’t have votes,’” and “We are adjourning and would return right after Christmas or right after New Year’s, depending on the circumstances.”
“There were gasps. People were stunned,” Cole said, adding that many members had expected instead a final pep talk before a vote on the bill.
A day after a Republican revolt killed his tax plan, Boehner was asked if he was worried about losing his job as speaker.
“No, I am not,” Boehner told reporters.
“If you do the right things every day for the right reasons, the right things will happen,” he said.