Boehner Agonistes

December 20, 2012

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner pushed his political chips into the center of the table.

"Tomorrow, the House will pass legislation to make permanent tax relief for nearly every American," he asserted in a 51-second press conference aimed at responding to an earlier press briefing President Obama gave on the fiscal cliff.

Today we find out if Boehner can make good on what is a major political gamble with a very big downside and a much harder-to-understand upside for the Speaker.

Let's go through the downside first.

Boehner has benefited in recent weeks by a media narrative -- begun by the New York Times -- that he is more in control of his GOP conference than at any time since he became Speaker following the 2010 election.

If the vote on the so-called "Plan B", which would extend the tax rates on everyone but those earning more than $1 million a year, fails -- and even the most optimistic Republicans acknowledge that it's going to be close -- it will be a massive blow to Boehner's strength as Speaker. (The same goes, by the way, if Boehner can't bring the bill to the floor for a vote, which should be interpreted as a sign that he doesn't have enough "yes's" to pass it.)

A failure to pass "Plan B" would not only drastically weaken Boehner's strength within his own party but it would also significantly erode his bargaining position with President Obama. If on Wednesday you tell the President publicly that "he can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in American history" and on Thursday you can't pass the bill, it doesn't take a political genius to understand that Boehner would lose any leverage he has in the cliff talks if "Plan B" goes down.

What's far less clear -- at least to us -- is what the upside of the "Plan B" gamble is for Boehner. There is no chance that the Senate even takes up "Plan B" even if Boehner gets it through the House later today.  So, why is he doing it?

According to Boehner allies, the point is that House Republicans are trying to govern, to find a plan that can actually make it through their chamber and, therefore, wind up as a law. (Of course, if the Senate and President Obama do nothing with it, "Plan B" will never become law.)

The other stated "win" for Boehner is to simultaneously see if passing "Plan B" wrings any more concessions from President Obama on his previously-stated willingness to exempt earners making $400,000 or less while also retaining some leverage as regards the raising of the debt ceiling, which is expected to need to be raised by late February.

"The political upside for Boehner is that he will have positioned Republicans to negotiate on all of the very serious threats to the economy -- the debt limit, entitlement reform, tax reform, sequester -- with the tax increase issue off the table," explained one Boehner backer. "The White House would be forced to deal with those issue without the cover excuse they keep falling back on, which is raising taxes on upper incomes."

Less publicly stated but not less important is that by passing "Plan B", Boehner is showing his Members his willingness to fight for them -- even if he ultimately cuts some sort of deal with the president that comes up short of the $1 million and above exemption. Boehner must have it appear as though he did absolutely everything possible to get the deal his House Republicans want before he settles (if he settles) with Obama.  Conceding early is, from an optics standpoint, a disaster for him.

The simple truth -- that smart Republicans know but can't say -- is that Boehner has very little leverage in all of this.  President Obama has just been re-elected and has some of his highest job approval ratings in years. Republicans are in the midst of an identity crisis, roaming (mostly) leaderless through the political desert with a badly damaged brand. Polling suggests that Republicans would likely lose the blame game if the country went off the cliff.

That political reality all falls at Boehner's feet -- really through no fault of his own. Passing "Plan B" seems to be the alternative he and his top strategists have decided is the best of a bad set of options to try to "win" in a muddle where losing is all around them.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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