Boehner’s Plan B Fails; Inmates Running Asylum

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U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) listens during a media availability after a House Republican Conference meeting December 18, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner announced that he is moving to a plan B to solve the fiscal cliff issue and he will put a bill on the floor that increases taxes for people whose incomes are more than one million dollars.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the last 24 hours, John Boehner has floated a “Plan B,” only to see that plan trigger a public meltdown within his own caucus. Plan B was a proposal for House Republicans to pass a bill that extends the Bush tax cuts for incomes up to $1,000,000 a year, not the $250,000 level insisted on by President Obama. Its collapse tells us a lot about where the negotiations are headed.

In theory, Plan B was a clever ploy by Boehner. The idea was to probe the weakest point in the Democratic strategy, which is the willingness of Democrats in the Senate to hold together. It was that inability that got Democrats into this mess in the first place. In 2010, when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, Obama wanted to extend the Bush tax cuts on incomes under $250,000, only to see his proposal fall apart as panicked Democrats in both houses fell to pieces over the prospect of raising taxes on the rich, with some proposing a higher income threshold and others insisting they wouldn’t allow taxes to rise on anybody. Senate Democrats, in a word, suck.

So Boehner is floating Plan B as an attempt to reprise the 2010 Democratic fiasco — in the absence of a deal, House Republicans would pass their under-$1,000,0000-salary tax cut and enough nervous Senate Democrats would go along with it, putting Obama in the position of standing in the way of tax relief for most Americans. Obama would veto Plan B if it passed, but getting his signature was never the point. This scenario would strengthen Boehner’s leverage, possibly making Obama afraid to take the fight into January and more likely to make concessions between now and then.

But Boehner isn’t going to get a chance to make his plan work, because Republicans themselves have revolted against it. Heritage Action, the conservative “think tank,” is planning a public denunciation. It is being openly denounced by such luminaries as Marco Rubio and Jim Jordan. Robert Costa reports in National Review that the plan may be dead on arrival. "A lot of us don't trust Boehner right now," one House Republican tells The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

What’s amazing about this reaction is that Plan B is not really a legislative proposal but a tactical maneuver to increase Boehner’s leverage. That is to say, even if Republicans find it substantively objectionable, they have no reason to oppose it since it is not designed to take effect. They opposed it anyway and have made little effort to hide their opposition. If Boehner can’t rally his troops behind a negotiating ploy like this, there’s no chance he can get them to support an actual deal Obama would sign.

And the conservative revolt shows something important: Boehner does not have control over his own caucus. Obama is trying to cut a deal with Boehner, and he may succeed, but in all likelihood such a “success” would lead to a reprise of the 2011 negotiations, when House Republicans threw the deal back in Boehner’s face. Obama better be planning to negotiate something in January.