It’s hard to overestimate the significance of what happened — or, more accurately, didn’t happen — on the House floor Thursday night.
Roughly 24 hours after publicly pledging that the House would pass a bill that would extend the current tax rates for all but those earning $1 million or more, Speaker John Boehner was forced to admit defeat — putting out a statement explaining that the legislation lacked the requisite support to bring it up for a vote on the floor.
To be clear: This was a gambit by Boehner designed to be a show of force to President Obama. This was Boehner putting himself out on a limb in hopes wavering members would follow him. This vote mattered to Boehner.
And he lost it.
It’s not clear what the fallout within the chamber will be — there is no obvious challenger to Boehner as Speaker but one could, of course, appear in the wake of this moment — but here’s what we now know:
1. Any bargaining power Boehner had with Obama — or hoped to have — is gone. The goal of passing “Plan B” was to be able to say to the president and Senate Democrats that House Republicans were the only people who had passed something that would avert the fiscal cliff. Now, not so much. Obama already had the upper hand in these negotiations — he was reelected just over a month ago — and Boehner knew it. What happened on the House floor Thursday night made a bad bargaining situation for Boehner that much worse.
2. The Republican party is in a bad place. Boehner is, ostensibly, the leader of the GOP right now since he is the Republican foil to the President. When that leader can’t rally a majority of votes in a chamber his party controls for a proposal he has made clear is personally and politically important to him, it suggests one thing: no one is at the controls. It’s also the latest indicator that the party is deeply divided between establishment types like Boehner who are trying to find the best deal possible and the base of the party who isn’t interested in making those sorts of compromises.
3. Boehner has lost control of the narrative. The next few days will be filled with stories about how this happened and what it means for Boehner. There are – and will be more — quotes from conservative types questioning why he even sought to bring the bill to a vote. There will be those privately — and maybe publicly — raising concerns about his political relevance. Boehner has been around the political block before and knows all of this is coming. And, if a deal gets reached at some point between now and Dec. 31, he will likely (and smartly) declare victory and try to move on. But the next 10 days (at least) are going to be very rough for him — and on Republicans more broadly.