Enjoy the Republicans’ debacle, but don’t read too much into it

December 20, 2012
Speaker John Boehner's Plan B fails in the House
House Speaker John Boehner (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

There was nothing but embarrassment for Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans tonight, as they were forced to pull the vote on Boehner’s “Plan B” tax bill at the last minute because, as Boehner said, they didn’t have the votes to pass it. The Speaker sent the House home for through Christmas, with the option of recalling them afterwards if there’s anything for them to do.

For tonight, it’s a debacle, and they look foolish. But I’d caution against reading too much into this episode. It’s not at all clear it changes anything moving forward.

First of all, if Boehner was using the vote to get information about how the members of his conference were thinking, it may have actually helped him know what kind of deal he can make with Barack Obama and get through the House. Remember, sooner or later it’s almost certain that Republicans in the House will have to do something to keep tax rates low for most filers while allowing them to go up for some upper-income taxpayers. They won’t need 218 votes for that one, however, so the fact that they couldn’t come up with this number today (albeit for a smaller tax increase) doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it then, either for a simple tax bill or for a larger budget deal. 

Second, I’ve seen some speculation that Boehner could be in danger of losing his job over this. In the long run, that may be true, but in the short run, the problems here have nothing to do with Boehner in particular. Any new speaker would be faced with exactly the same dilemma: Too many House Republicans won’t accept the reality of the deal they will eventually have to accept.

More generally, what comes next depends on what the House leadership learned from this debacle. It could be that they have some 125 or so members perfectly willing to vote for a major deal; if so, the deal that Obama and Boehner were reportedly close to earlier this week could wind up returning even before January 1. Or it could be that what liberals have been saying all along turned out to be true: A plan with an identical result will count to the people who matter in the GOP as a dreaded tax increase if it’s done now, but suddenly it will count as a tax cut if it’s done after Jan. 1, when the current tax rates expire. If that’s the case, we’re going over the cliff, but a deal could be reached and pass in early January. Or, finally, it could be that what Republicans really want is to never take a vote to confirm the next tax rates, and would rather (as was suggested a while ago) just allow the Senate bill (which would raise rates only for households making over $250,000) to pass — if necessary by voting “present” and letting Democrats supply the votes. 

All of these outcomes were plausible before; all that’s changed is the GOP got (another) black eye, and — perhaps — the leadership learned more about the preferences of Republican members. 

The bottom line remains that some sort of bill to prevent middle-class taxes from going up and the sequester going ahead — as well as renewing the AMT patch and the Medicare “doc fix” – is virtually certain sooner or later, on slightly better or worse terms. This isn’t like when a party is trying to pass a bill which, if it fails, just goes away. And it’s not even, at least in my view, something with a firm deadline and immediate, devastating, consequences; this won’t lead to a government shutdown.

So I won’t predict the next step, but other than everyone having good fun at the expense of the House Republican leadership — and no question, Boehner and the rest deserve it — it’s just not clear that tonight’s fiasco will change anything. 

UPDATE: In scuttling the Plan B bill, house conservatives have effectively removed themselves from the conversation over how to resolve our fiscal problems, meaning the only way a solution will pass is with a lot of support from House Democrats.

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Greg Sargent | December 20, 2012