President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi missed a great opportunity Thursday night (okay, I realize I’m late, but I’m just getting used to this 24/7 thing). They should have quietly called Speaker John Boehner and offered to provide whatever votes were necessary to pass his Plan B.
I realize Plan B was a not-very-clever negotiating ploy by Boehner that showed bad faith in his negotiations with the President.
And I realize that, as a result of Boehner’s embarrassing defeat Thursday night, Democrats believe their hands have been strengthened now that Boehner’s has been weakened by the division that has been laid bare within the House Republican caucus.
But if you are Obama, and your goal is not to stick it to the other side but to get a grand bargain done before the inaugural roughly along the lines that all the bipartisan commissions have laid out, then it's necessary to create a different legislative template, one in which legislation passes with a bipartisan majority in the center and plenty of “nay” votes from both the Democratic left and the Republic right.
That’s the way it worked for many years. But since the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they have operated on the rule of the “majority of the majority” — that is, that no major piece of legislation will be put before the House unless it is first approved by a majority of Republican members, and that once authorized, Republicans would be expected to vote together as a block. In a divided government and a divided Congress, that became a recipe for gridlock.
It’s been obvious all along — and certainly since an election that Democrats believe strengthened their hand — that Boehner was not going to be able to get a working majority of his caucus to vote for a grand bargain that would be acceptable to a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. So Thursday night was a chance for a test run for a new bipartisan template. Once passed, Boehner’s Plan B would have gone over to the Senate, where it could have sat until a broader grand bargain was hammered out.
By letting Boehner be hoisted on his own petard — by letting his misguided gambit fail — Democrats also lost a chance to do one of those political favors that provide the grease to the legislative machinery. “We’ll help you out on this, John,” they could have said, “and you can help us when it comes down to making some last-minute tweaks that will allow us to pick up a few votes from reluctant Democrats later on.” It could have been an important step in the trust building process between the Speaker and the President that will be a necessary pre-condition for getting a deal done.
At his news conference Friday morning, Boehner tried to snuff out any incipient challenge to his speakership within the Republican caucus. But if Democrats had offered to come to his rescue Thursday night, it would have also been a signal to those considering such a rebellion that Democrats could also come to his rescue on Jan. 3 if need be. And why would Democrats do that? Because it will be easier to strike an acceptable deal with a weakened and grateful Boehner than a new Speaker who thinks he has a mandate from his caucus and from God to not give an inch to tax-and-spend Democrats plunging the economy back into recession.
I realize a proud Boehner could well have rejected such an offer of help from the President and the Speaker. But simply making it would have been an important first step in ending the Hatfield-and-McCoy partisan bitterness that now paralyzes Washington.
A few weeks back, everyone was gushing over the "Lincoln" movie. Well, another lesson from that movie has to do with being gracious with your enemies after the battle has been won. House Republicans have lost the war, but they still have the troops necessary to continue a bloody battle. Now is the time to help their leaders negotiate an honorable surrender that may not be the total victory Democrats want, but the one a divided country prefers.