Boehner faces a political cliff over budget fracas in Washington

December 22, 2012

House Speaker John A. Boehner spent much of Thursday confidently predicting that he could pass a plan to avert the year-end “fiscal cliff.”

“Sure did,” Boehner acknowledged with a wry smile Friday, the day after he was forced to cancel the vote due to lack of support. The stunning rebuke by his fellow Republicans was the most critical test of Boehner’s leadership since he assumed control of the new Republican majority two years ago and called into question Boehner’s ability to lead his GOP majority. Boehner said he is not worried about his speakership, but his reputation as a leader could be seriously in danger.

“I think the speaker’s legacy and his leadership are at stake here,” said Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, who served more than 30 years in the House and is now the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “This is a major moment in his career.”

Hamilton said that, ultimately, the Ohio Republican’s reputation probably will be determined by whether Congress and President Obama manage to cut a fiscal cliff agreement and not by one legislative setback.

But late Thursday, Boehner failed to get the 217 votes he needed to pass a plan to extend tax breaks for more than 99 percent of Americans, while allowing them to rise for those making more than $1 million a year. He had already failed to reach a broader bipartisan deficit reduction plan in one-on-one talks with Obama, but the collapse of his own plan left Boehner throwing up his hands and insisting that it was now up to the president and the Democratic-controlled Senate to solve the crisis.

A short, animated video breaks down the basics of the “fiscal cliff.” (The Washington Post)

Boehner vowed Saturday to “continue to work with our colleagues in the Congress and the White House on a plan that protects families and small businesses.”

But, in the GOP’s weekly taped address, he reiterated Republican opposition to tax increases and called for more concessions from the White House.

‘It’s one for the textbooks’

The collapse of Boehner’s own plan Thursday seemed a monumental setback.

“On a major piece of legislation that affects taxes and the functioning of government and so many of the things wrapped up in this fiscal cliff, I can’t think of anything comparable,” said Ray Smock, who served as the House’s official historian from 1983 to 1995 and now is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University.

Smock noted the drama of Thursday night’s non-vote, with Boehner on the verge of tears as he announced to his caucus he was canceling the vote and then stormed from the Capitol. “It’s one for the textbooks, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

Despite the defections among his GOP members, there was no sign Friday that Boehner was in immediate danger of being deposed as House leader.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), often cast as Boehner’s leading conservative rival, had likewise leaned on Republicans to approve what Boehner had dubbed “Plan B.”

In a show of support, Cantor appeared at a news conference at Boehner’s side Friday to call for the Senate to extend tax rates for Americans at all income levels, the long-held GOP position.

A spokesman for Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), whom some activists have urged to challenge Boehner, said he does not plan to run for the job when the new Congress begins next month.

Asked Friday if he is concerned that his title might be in jeopardy, Boehner answered simply, “No. I’m not.”

He had attempted to convince his caucus that the GOP should go on record with a bill to shield the vast majority of Americans from broad tax increases set to take effect next month when tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush are scheduled to expire without congressional action.

But he said he was not able to overcome the perception that supporting the bill would amount to voting for a tax increase, particularly one that would not be tied to any spending cuts or changes in entitlement programs.

Boehner said members opposing the plan “weren’t taking that out on me.”

Important lesson for GOP?

Aides said that despite the public embarrassment, the failed vote could actually strengthen the speaker’s hand.

The episode provided a public demonstration of how difficult it will be for Republicans to vote for any tax increase, potentially impressing on Obama that he must offer more than the $930 billion in spending cuts included in his latest offer to Boehner on Monday if he hopes to convince Republicans that tax rates should rise for the wealthy.

And while Boehner could not muster the near-unanimous support he needed to pass his bill without any Democratic support, Republican leaders spent two full days securing commitments from members willing to back the plan — votes they could deliver to propel a bipartisan deal that also got votes from across the aisle.

“Reports of John Boehner’s death have been greatly exaggerated,” one GOP leadership aide said.

Another said the moment — and the immediate and bruising political aftermath — had shown the importance of supporting their leader for a caucus with 87 members who were elected only in 2010. “It’s one of those lessons learned,” said the aide.

Many members preparing to vote against the bill Thursday had resisted criticizing Boehner, declining to label him a traitor for even bringing up the idea, as a number of top conservatives outside of Washington had done in recent days. Dissenters insisted they respected Boehner’s leadership and liked him personally.

Still, in Washington, leaders do not need to be liked — they need to be followed.

A unique predicament

The episode offered few historical parallels.

In 1910, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, angered by the near dictatorial power wielded by House Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.), conspired to strip Cannon of his procedural power.

In 1997, a series of GOP disappointments, including public unhappiness with a government shutdown, prompted a group of Republicans to mount an ultimately failed coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

What made Thursday’s vote different was the legislative defeat on an issue of monumental national importance, conducted in the glare of public attention, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.

Without congressional action, $500 billion in tax hikes and across-the-board, indiscriminate spending cuts will take effect next month, potentially pushing the nation back into recession.

The defeat came, as well, on a bill not designed to solve the problem but merely to stand as a statement of Republican principle in negotiations with Democrats.

“This was supposed to be a placeholder, just political cover,” said Binder, who studies the history of Congress. “I’m having a hard time coming up with even roughly approximate precedent that seems similar.”

What might save Boehner is the sense that he may be confronting unyielding forces of modern Washington that might be no easier for any other congressional leader to navigate.

In a hyperpartisan era, he cannot bring up bills without the support of a majority of his own GOP members. There are few moderates in either party willing to break ranks and support priorities of their opponents.

The new Republican majority has also eliminated some of the tools once wielded by powerful speakers to lure wavering votes.

Earmarks are no more and accepting pork for a local spending project in exchange for a difficult vote can now earn a Republican lawmaker a tea party primary challenger.

“I think he’s up against an immutable force,” Smock said. “He’s between the worst rock and hard place of any speaker in modern times.”

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