People are using words like “meltdown” to describe the failure of the House of Representatives last night to pass “Plan B.” They’re doing that because House votes are traditionally a matter of pure formality, normally having all the suspense of a Politburo vote. John Boehner expected to squeeze 217 votes from his 241 Republican members because, once Boehner had decided on his course, they had no rational choice. It was vote with him or court pure chaos. Some number of his charges – at least a couple dozen – chose chaos.
At the same time, the actual stakes of the vote were far from Earth-shaking. Let us consider the progression here. Boehner had been negotiating quite fruitfully with President Obama, and had brought the terms of the emerging agreement closer to where he started than Obama had started, with a deal-hungry Obama apparently ready to move even a bit farther. Then, almost certainly, Boehner realized that he couldn’t really deliver his caucus to vote for the deal he had put on the table. So he stopped bargaining and instead prepared a fallback, “Plan B,” a moniker that will likely live on as a Washington punch line for years to come.
The point of Plan B was to fashion a parachute for Republicans for January. As it stands, if the new year arrives with no deal in place, Obama will have the upper hand. The full expiration of the Bush tax cuts will make the budget baseline more favorable, turning any change in taxes into a tax cut. And Obama, who is highly popular, will be able to attack Republicans, who are highly unpopular, for their insistence on keeping taxes low for the rich, which is highly unpopular, at the cost of raising taxes on the middle class, which is also highly unpopular.
Plan B was an attempt to give Republicans a talking point, a place to stand, as they endured the political pummeling Obama has in store for them. They would vote to preserve tax rates on all income under $1,000,000 a year, a measure that would spare millionaires themselves most of the coming tax hike, and give the government very little revenue. Then, the thinking went, the blame for the “fiscal cliff” would at least be more amorphous – Obama would blame Republicans, but Republicans would blame Democrats for not agreeing to their plan, which had passed the House.
Except now that it hasn’t passed the House, Republicans have no fallback.
One impact of this is, possibly, to make a deal in December more likely. I didn’t say it makes a deal likely – I’ve been predicting a deal in January for months -- only more likely than it was before last night’s meltdown. Remember, the voting coalition on Plan B does not resemble the coalition that will pass whatever deal finally emerges. Boehner was always going to lose scores of conservative members on the final deal with Obama, and make up for their loss by adding Democrats.
The Plan B meltdown exposes Boehner’s weakness among the craziest of his crazies, and may leave him less willing to incur their wrath. But incur it he will, either by making a last-minute deal with Obama, or next year, when a huge tax hike (and defense cuts) spring into effect. The existence of a blowback on the right has always been a given. The practical effect of the failure of Plan B is to make it harder for Boehner to execute the strategy the crazies want him to follow. (That is how crazy they are -- so crazy they can't even rationally connect their power to their own desired ends.)
Without Boehner’s fallback strategy, the bulk of his membership if left totally exposed to Obama’s withering January attack. If they were hoping to fight it out with the president after the New Year, their hopes of victory look even fainter now.