In the end the House vote wasn’t all that close (257-167) to pass the Senate’s fiscal cliff compromise. There were 85 Republicans, including the speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who voted for the bill. Almost inexplicably, Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Kevin McCarthy (R- Calif.), after the alternative to the Senate version failed to get 218 votes, voted against the measure, thereby making the choice to raise taxes on all Americans. They also made themselves effectively useless in future negotiations, proving themselves to be unreliable “leaders.” Ironically, had McCarthy done his job and properly whipped the Plan B the GOP would have been in a much better spot.

Rep. Paul Ryan -Win McNamee / Getty Images

There were plenty of irate right-wingers ranting that the House had the temerity to make permanent the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts, shelter millions in estate taxes, make permanent the alternative minimum tax patch and spare the country for now from devastating defense cuts. You have to wonder if these folks recall that the GOP lost the presidential election and a number of Senate seats.

We have two types of conservatives. There are the show boaters, in this case personified by Cantor, McCarthy and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who apparently are so afraid of the base they would rather speechify and subject every taxpayer in the country to a tax hike than take a deal that minimizes the pain. They will get some kudos from the very same people who thought Sharron Angle and Gov. Rick Perry (R) would be fine national candidates. But these Republican officials also proved themselves to be irrelevant to the negotiating process and hence ignorable.

On the other hand, there were conservatives who were willing to take a few blows and cast the tough vote because it was the right thing to do. They did not want to send the country into recession or the party into the political wilderness by cutting off their noses (the Senate compromise) to spite their faces. In a written statement, Ryan made clear why he is among the conservatives who look at the results of their actions, not the fervor of their own rhetoric:

Today, I joined my colleagues in the House to protect as many Americans as possible from a tax increase. We also provided certainty by making the lower tax rates permanent. The House has already passed legislation to prevent tax increases for every American family, and it is unfortunate that President Obama insisted on taking more from hardworking taxpayers. Despite my concerns with other provisions in the bill, I commend my colleagues for limiting the damage as much as possible. 


The American people chose divided government. As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing. And we must exercise prudence. We must weigh the benefits and the costs of action—and of inaction. In H.R. 8, there are clearly provisions that I oppose. But the question remains: Will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative? In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions—not to run away from them.

Ryan will soon be front and center in drafting the next budget. As he noted, it is in this context and with the leverage of the debt-ceiling fight that Republicans can turn to “the real problem: out-of-control spending.”

You will recall it was Ryan’s Medicare reform plan that dragged the party into reform mode and gave them an ideologically sound position on which to defend their House majority. Maybe his instincts are a wee bit more keen than the people who swore Christine O’Donnell was the ideal Senate candidate.

It is tempting to make more of the fiscal cliff deal than it is. At best, it was the least horrible compromise on taxes available after the same crew that now complains about Ryan’s vote sunk Plan B. It is a short reprieve on the sequester with a combination of cuts and a pro-savings Roth IRA tax provision, which Republicans have sought for some time. It is not entitlement reform. It is not spending restraint. But these things were not obtainable after the GOP lost the election and when taxes were scheduled to go up on everyone. They might be obtainable in part in later face-offs.

A party that makes the perfect the enemy of the good is not one that can retain a majority. Proponents of that brand of politics do not make for winning presidential or senatorial candidates. Maybe Rubio, Cantor and McCarthy will engage in some self-reflection. They should consider whether they want to be lawmakers furthering the conservative agenda or lapdogs of the conservative racket that thrives on the politics of outrage and victimhood. If it is the latter they should join Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in positions with zero accountability or responsibility. If not, they should start behaving like smart conservatives who care about policy outcomes.