Political Animal


December 21, 2012 8:26 AM Speaker Boehner’s Plan B Fails

By Ryan Cooper

The big news from late last night is that John Boehner’s so-called Plan B, a measure chock-full of Republican goodies which was guaranteed to die in the Senate, failed in grand fashion. It was only ever a CYA vote, a fig leaf for Boehner so he could blame the Democrats for not passing it, but the galloping extremism of House Republicans tripped him up again. Here’s David Dayen with some context:

This is astonishing. Boehner spent three days talking up Plan B, which you just don’t do without the votes in hand. But conservative groups rule the House, and they turned against a bill that gives tax breaks to everyone making up to $1 million, along with enough reductions in other taxes to soften the blow for those poor millionaires. But House Republicans just aren’t going to do it, on this or any tax increase.
This completely changes the dynamic of the talks, in my view. The President is simply not going to be able to win a grand bargain. The House couldn’t even do this simple millionaire’s bracket. There’s no way the President can continue to negotiate with someone who cannot bring the votes of his caucus forward. There is simply no negotiating partner on the other side, which has given way to crazy. It’s an impasse.

David Kurtz wonders if this is the end of Boehner’s Speakership:

It is easy to overreact to these things in the moment, to overread them. But Speaker Boehner just put it all on the line. The entire nation was watching, and he was exposed. He knows it. His conference knows it. Anyone left in Washington who had doubts about this speaker’s clout now knows it, too. In a parliamentary system, he would resign and his party would elect a new leader. We don’t do it that way here … usually. But it’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here — or why he would want to.

This raises a question that has been at the back of my mind for awhile now: just why is Boehner just a weak Speaker? To think of him and Sam Rayburn holding the same post is jarring. We are in a new era of very partisan and ideologically homogeneous parties, but that didn’t stop Nancy Pelosi from being an extraordinarily effective leader just in a purely mechanical sense. Whatever else you think about her, she clearly knows how to get bills through her caucus. Dennis Hastert was weaker, but he and Tom Delay didn’t faceplant like this all the time.

My gut instinct is that it’s the obvious answer: Republican extremism. If keeping taxes low on millionaires takes a backseat to every other political calculation to such an extent that the caucus won’t even give their ostensible leader a meaningless fig leaf with no chance of becoming law, then a Speaker will be powerless. There’s also the grand vizier problem—Eric Cantor is famously just waiting for the chance to knife Boehner and claim the Speakership for himself.

But I haven’t seen much reporting on this. All the profiles I’ve seen of Boehner are from 2010 (a New Yorker piece speculating on this question exactly, a straightforward WaPo bit, and a hilarious but not very informative Matt Taibbi piece), and nothing really digging into why this keeps happening. Perhaps Boehner just hasn’t shored up his power base enough; perhaps that’s why a few weeks ago he sacked a bunch of committee chairmen for, essentially, insubordination.

It’s an important topic, because if it’s the caucus and not Boehner, then that means it doesn’t matter who is Speaker, no one will be able to wrangle the votes for a compromise. Anyone seen some good work on this question?


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • T2 on December 21, 2012 9:18 AM:

    When Jennifer Rubin of the WaPo calls Republicans "incapable of governing" you've got to know that they are, blatantly, incapable of governing.
    What this "revelation" means for the country can't be good. At the end of the day, when you elect crazy people to represent you, expect them to do crazy things.

  • Ron Byers on December 21, 2012 9:26 AM:

    The real problem is the "Hastart Rule." In times past back benchers knew that if they didn't bend to the will of the leadership, the leadership would go across the aisle and pick up the votes they needed to pass some important contraversial measure. That helped keep the back benchers in line. They knew that to be relevant they had to play ball at some level. After the Gingrich reforms and the Hastart Rule, power has shifted to the back benchers who are all showboating for the Fox News crowd. Running the house like a parliament might have made Gingrich feel important, but it is not the way the system is designed.

  • low-tech cyclist on December 21, 2012 9:33 AM:

    As I said over at MaddowBlog, I don't see Cantor wanting the job right now.

    If he was Speaker, he'd be the guy either making concessions in these sham negotiations, or visibly refusing to negotiate. The former would end his cred with the wingnut base, and the latter would at least hurt his cred with the VSPs of the Village.

    As long as Boehner's the frontman, he gets to take that bit of heat, and Cantor can be the guy insisting on a better deal. And the GOP can keep on trying to whipsaw Obama between the two until Obama gets wise and insists on negotiating directly with Cantor and Ryan.

  • just bill on December 21, 2012 9:33 AM:

    i'll tell you why bonehead is such a weak speaker. when the first teabagger acted up, he should have moved his office into a broom closet in the basement and taken away half of his staff. when you let morons like this get away with crap like that, you totally lose control of them.

  • dalloway on December 21, 2012 9:34 AM:

    How come you're just realizing this now? Wasn't it obvious from the debt ceiling debacle that Boner had zero control over the crazies? Extremist Republicans have decided that if they don't govern, then nobody will be allowed to govern.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on December 21, 2012 9:38 AM:

    This completely changes the dynamic of the talks, in my view.The President is simply not going to be able to win a grand bargain.

    We've all seen this little kabuki theater production before. This isn't the first time the Teahadist caucus played el loco leaving pundits clamouring to say Boehner's hand is strengthened in negotiations by his crazy caucus. (See 2010-2012, esp. debt ceiling deal). Trade out credit default for recessionary middle class tax hikes and the show goes on........

  • esaud on December 21, 2012 9:45 AM:

    Boehner is up for re-election on January 3. My guess is that Cantor will make a move, because he shafted Boehner in the Plan B fiasco. Cantor probably knew Boehner didn't have the votes, yet let him twist in the wind.

    If Cantor doesn't make a move now, then when? Low-tech above points out that Cantor should want to stay in the catbird seat, but rationality is not a feature of the tea partiers. They all believe in their own hype.

  • Josef K on December 21, 2012 9:59 AM:

    I hate to bring up the obvious - if only because it risks making me sound completely nuts - but there's the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. You know: the one that makes the Speaker of the House #3 in the line for Presidential Succession!

    Its a matter of public record that threats against President Obama have skyrocketed this year, and given the sheer number of shooting incidents in recent weeks is it too big a stretch to wonder if Boehner might not be holding out for the chance to legally reside in 1600?

    We talk endlessly about the "extremism" of the GOP today; can we not carry that line of thought out to it logical conclusion?

  • c u n d gulag on December 21, 2012 10:00 AM:

    Last evening, Boehner perfomed his solo "Kabuki Dance of Suicide."

    I really don't understand what he was thinking.

    Boehner is not a Teabagging firebrand. Far from it. He is an old-school corrupt Republican, with either hand always ready for a bribe, or to pay for a favor, and always working to make his Corporatist and rich friends happy.

    Boehner is a very weak leader, and could easily lose his Speakership very soon.
    But who would want it?
    Not even Congressman Iago Cantor. I can't see him wanting it, because any deal he proposes that even has a hint of coming to terms with Obama and the Democrats, will result in him being called a party-traitor, and will likely cause his own House rebellion.
    Then how about Ryan? Rinse and repeat of Cantor?
    I don't think Cantor has Presidential asperations. Ryan does. So why would he even think about becoming Speaker, and trying to work with the Senate and the President? He'll lose his Conservative "Wonk" scholarship in the MSM.

    So, unless Boehner steps down, I don't think he's going anywhere.
    Anyone who replaces him, who's not a Teabagger, had better inherit the Speakers liquor cabinet - he'll need it. And there's no incentive for one of the Teabaggers to lose FOX-cred, by taking the job and - there's that N-word again - NEGOTIATING.

    The only losers here, are "We the people." But then, many of us deserve it, for voting in bridge trolls with a perfect vacuum between their ears, and souls of rusted steel.
    Unfortunately, we all hang together.


  • Meme killer on December 21, 2012 10:06 AM:

    One of the congressmen interviewed afterwards - obviously saddened - when asked if they tried talking to these members, said, "We've talked to them for two years and they become martyrs."

    This time, I get the feeling Boehner was not surprised. I think he had one course left that would fail, and he might as well go all-out or, why's he even there? This was Boehner's equivalent to Obama giving away the store to get a debt-ceiling deal. Now he knows: there is no deal these guys will accept other than one-party rule and total surrender of the opposition. Even after an election rebuke. Even holding half the congress.

    Now he knows. So... Does he wake up like Obama did? Or play Tiddlywings?

  • PTate in MN on December 21, 2012 10:10 AM:

    Some of the explanation lies with the pool from which the speaker is selected. We saw the same lack of talent in the 2012 Republican primaries. For the Republicans to embrace their faith-based reality, they had to drive out anyone with enough brains to notice that it didn't work. As a result, the party is staffed by wackos, hacks and con men. At this point, a competent Republican is an oxymoron.

  • Steve LaBonne on December 21, 2012 10:10 AM:

    This is the time to break the Republican caucus and force abandonment of the Hastert Rule once and for all, so that, after the dust settles,a working coalition can be assembled from the Dems and a small rump of relatively sane Republicans, and the country can actually be governed. Otherwise we face two solid years of anarchy. Anyway, reverting to ALL of the Clinton tax rates is the real progressive position, and living with the sequester for a few months is better than some of the awful "grand bargains" that have been floated. So it's time to sit tight for a while and watch the crazies eat their own. NO more bargaining. That means YOU, Mr. President. Go have a nice Christmas with your family and STFU for a while.

  • T2 on December 21, 2012 10:11 AM:

    I've seen lots of articles today arguing that Obama now has great leverage in the Cliff negotiations....buy he always did - he's the one that gave away (or tried to) the leverage to the GOP House. They refused it last night, but there's no reason to think that future negotiations won't start with the giveaways Obama offered last week. I'd hope he'd go back to the $250k, hands-off SocSec and Medicare position he was elected on, but I wouldn't bet on it. Fact is, the leverage is that the Bush Tax Cuts and massive budget cuts (heavy on Pentagon) will happen if nothing is done and I'm increasingly hopeful that's exactly what Obama will allow. Then come back on Jan.3 and hand Boner a package that gives the Dems what they want and the GOP none. That's what the American people favor.

  • biggerbox on December 21, 2012 10:14 AM:

    I'm sorry to think this might mean the end of Boehner's Speakership, because his incompetence has been the only thing saving us from seeing some really awful deals enacted. Imagine how badly a smart and cunning Speaker might have rolled Obama, using Obama's compulsive "reasonableness" against him.

    I am glad that the morning news does seem to be covering it as "the Republicans refused to vote for higher taxes for millionaires", which is a surprisingly good spin for them to have adopted. Thanks again, Boehner!

  • Kenneth D. Franks on December 21, 2012 10:21 AM:

    It is really nuts that they continue, House Republicans, that is, with a majority of the majority vote rule, "The Hastert Rule," It is completely non binding, self imposed, and gives the back bench bunch too much power to veto anything whether it is real compromise or not.

  • paul on December 21, 2012 10:26 AM:

    What Steve said. Think of the power that a couple dozen sane republicans would wield in the House if they announced they were going to caucus with the democrats until further notice. Surely there are enough safe seats. But are there a couple dozen sane republicans left?

  • Gandalf on December 21, 2012 10:30 AM:

    Boy the emperor has no clothes! If there's any doubt left for the people who voted these incomparable assholes into congress then were just basically screwwwwwwwed. They would rather see everybody have their taxes go up and military spending cut drastically and the poor dumped into trash bins than to come up with a deal to run the country smoothly. For crying out loud what's wrong with these nuts?

  • Peter C on December 21, 2012 10:32 AM:

    I'm tired of concessions to Republicans so I've always been leery of 'Grand Bargains'.

    I'd like to see a more complete assessment of the impact of the full 'fiscal cliff' scenario on the debt-ceiling. My impression is that the combination of increased revenues (through the Bush Tax Cut expiration) and decreased spending (some needed right-sizing of the military) will go a long way to averting the need for another hostage-taking debt ceiling situation, but I've never seen a full analysis. Has anyone else seen something they can point me to?

    The main benefit to going over the 'fiscal cliff' is that it makes the optics of our political situation less distorted for the general public. If we fall into recession, we'll need stimulus. We'll propose it and the Republicans will block it. We'll propose a middle-class tax cut and the Republicans will block it since it doesn't disproportionately benefit the 1%. In short, we'll try to get good, sane, beneficial policies made into law and their crazy back bench will foam and froth like the rabid ideologues that they are. And, hopefully, the voters will finally understand the real dynamic and relegate the GOP to the dustbin of history.

  • enn bee on December 21, 2012 10:45 AM:

    Boner's deranged teahadists couldn't even vote for their own "leader's" pathetically weak tax increase, they are absolutely stark raving mad and worthless space and salary wasters.

    Will they get to try "again" as the oracle of craptchi wants to know? They seem so "small" ... [yeah, even tho i *know* i typed it in right the first time, it messed with me ... we all know this crap deliberately challenges yadda percentage of accurate tries just to put sand in the gears, to protect the precious web site from a few adds for sneakers or whatever ... I waste more time doing this junk that i would even reading and going to those sites ...

  • enn bee on December 21, 2012 10:49 AM:

    Heh, this might not all be about the taxes per se - revenge from the tealiban over the sackings? We know how into revenge these sub-philistines are ... heh, and but yes they sure don't give an "inch" ...

  • Josef K on December 21, 2012 11:07 AM:

    Leaving aside all the egg on Speaker Boehner's face, anyone have a read on whether or not the White House has written the man off entirely? If he can't control his caucus enough to actually bring the tax half of Plan B to a vote (the spending cuts half passed from what I understand), everyone (including presumably the GOP rank-and-file) knowing full well it was just theatre, then what good is he to the White House?

    Negotiation requires someone to negotiate with, someone who can and will deliver votes needed to pass legislation. I'm getting the sinking feeling the GOP majority in the House don't want to do anything productive, period, which means we all need to be ready for the worse case scenarios to possibly play out. Not economic collapse, per se, but more like panicked markets and Congressmen burned in effigy.

    Or not. With this crowd, who knows.

  • Altoid on December 21, 2012 11:24 AM:

    @Peter C: excellent point! Will the Budget Control Act string out the time before hitting the debt ceiling, say several months or more? Long enough that it can't be used as a terror weapon like last time, so the real urgency will come from damage to the economy. Love it. Hope Obama sees the possibility and seizes it.

    I agree with commenters above-- as long as there's a Hastert rule, the speakership is worthless and the House is deadlocked. Boehner isn't personally a hotshot, but not even an LBJ could run that caucus. It would take a J Edgar Hoover, with his little secret files, and even that might not be enough. But even without a Hastert rule, it's a mess. What we have now is effectively a faction-driven nineteenth-century parliament.

    The problem is where to go from here. One obvious solution would be something like a coalition government, with a gop speaker elected by Democrats or vice versa, but that would take a lot of negotiating and we don't have any recent experience with it that I can think of. Thanks for nothing, teapers.

  • MuddyLee on December 21, 2012 11:36 AM:

    We need to vote every day with the dollars we spend and communicate to the corporations who are part of the ultra conservative republican craziness. Darden, the restaurant corp, has seen declining revenues since they made their plans known to undermine Obamacare (Olive Garden, Lonestar, Red Lobster are among their restaurants). They can count dollars. We all know about Papa Johns. We know about the Koch Brothers brands Brawny and Dixie. We know about Walmart. Let's support good businesses when we can, and the least worst businesses when we can't. And never miss an opportunity to criticize Fox News, WSJ, and other media promoters of rightwing craziness. We need sane politics and sane politicians in this country.

  • ToddColorado on December 21, 2012 11:48 AM:

    An aspect I haven't seen examined is the effect of gerrymandering. It seems to me if you do it severely enough it cuts both ways. Someone gets elected who otherwise wouldn't, but it also makes it difficult to run a moderate candidate. So in a sense GOP is now beholden to the gerrymander. Reps from those districts CAN'T vote any other way.

    This isn't a Democrat Party endorsement. If the districts were drawn fairly, Dems likely would have won the House, and Boehner wouldn't be Speaker. He can avoid some of this chaos by jettisoning the Hastert Rule, but the root cause is their policies have a minority of public support and they can't vote for what the majority of Americans want because their districts don't reflect the cross-section of people that they should.

  • SalemProgressive on December 21, 2012 12:01 PM:

    This completely changes the dynamic of the talks, in my view. The President is simply not going to be able to win a grand bargain.

    One thing that the 2 points in this article outlines is a very clear way forward: Boehner makes a grand bargain with Obama telling him how many GOP votes he can bring and ask Obama to bring the rest. This gives Obama more leverage and could make the Speaker the adult in the party that the press has tried to make him out to be. I agree it would be hard to walk back from $400k to $250k, but there is a chance that Obama could get a much better deal if he can sell Boehner on this idea.

  • Peter C on December 21, 2012 12:49 PM:

    I'm fairly resigned to the fact that we'll have another 2 years of complete legislative gridlock. 2009 and 2010 were the years of the filibuster. 2011 and 2012 were the years of no accord between the House and the Senate. And, 2013 and 2014 will be a repeat of the last two years.

    We have to make sure that the American public understand that Congress' disasterous gridlock is caused solely by Republicans, their corrosive ideology and general incompetence. They want to show that 'Government can't work', but we need to make sure people understand that Republicans destroy effective government. When they are in control, they start wars and crash the economy. When they aren't in control, government works (to a large extent) and when they are relatively weak, government works just fine. People need to relearn that their votes really make a difference to their future and they can't just blithely vote for the pretty person without real consequences.

  • rrk1 on December 21, 2012 2:34 PM:

    Boner said Obama from himself again, but that doesn't mean Obama won't throw in the towel. He doesn't seem to know when he's won, or what to do except to make more concessions.

    Aside from that, Boner can't make a deal now until after Jan 1, and only then might he be willing to take what few moderates are left on his side into a coalition with Democrats to pass something reasonable. The horse trading on that is potentially frightening given Obama's gift for negotiating with himself.

    Boner's speakership might depend on some Democratic votes. Wouldn't that be a kick in the head, but it would put the Tealiban in their place, i.e, a dark closet.