Will Boehner’s speakership survive until Plan C?

December 20, 2012

Has there been a House speaker in modern American history with less control over his members than John Boehner?

Sad trombone. (Charles Dharapak / AP)

Over the past three days, Boehner has focused all attention on "Plan B": an effort to strengthen his hand in negotiations with President Obama by passing backup legislation that would extend the Bush tax cuts for all income under $1 million.

Tonight, Boehner lost that vote. In a dramatic turn of events on the House floor, he pulled the legislation. In a statement released moments ago, he said, "The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass." Boehner lost. 

Plan A, which was a deal with Obama, was put on ice, many believe, because Boehner couldn't wrangle the votes to pass anything Obama would sign. Plan B failed because Boehner couldn't wrangle the Republican votes to pass something Obama had sworn he wouldn't sign. 

The failure of Plan B proved something important: Boehner doesn't have enough Republican support to pass any bill that increases taxes -- even one meant to block a larger tax increase -- without a significant number of Democrats. The House has now adjourned until after Christmas, but it's clear now what Plan C is going to have to be: Boehner is going to need to accept the simple reality that if he's to be a successful speaker, he's going to need to begin passing legislation with Democratic votes.

There's an asterisk there, though: It's not entirely clear whether Boehner will be the speaker of the House a month from today. The vote to elect the next speaker is on Jan. 3. To win, you need an absolute majority of the House, not a plurality. Even a hopeless conservative challenge that attracts only a handful of Republican votes could deny Boehner the speakership until a consensus candidate emerged. Tonight's vote makes that challenge more likely.

A significant number of Boehner's members clearly don't trust his strategic instincts, they don't feel personally bound to support him, they clearly disagree with his belief that tax rates must rise as part of a deal, and they, along with many other Republicans, must be humiliated after the shenanigans on the House floor this evening. Worse, they know that Boehner knows he'll need Democratic support to get a budget deal done. That means "a cave," at least from the perspective of the conservative bloc, is certain. That, too, will make a change of leadership appealing.

If a conservative spoiler runs, he or she could very possibly deny Boehner the 218 votes he needs to become speaker, clearing the way for a consensus candidate like Eric Cantor to unite the party. It's hard to say exactly how likely that is. But it's likelier than it was, say, this morning.

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Brad Plumer · December 20, 2012