How House Republicans Neutered Themselves

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Last night witnessed the implosion of John Boehner’s efforts to pass a Republican-crafted fiscal-cliff proposal, otherwise known as “Plan B.” Unlike the floated compromise, Boehner's proposal would extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone earning under $1 million, preserve a high estate-tax cut-off, and slash spending on tax credits for working-class Americans (in addition to cutting Obamacare and repealing key mechanisms of Dodd-Frank).

The idea was to build leverage in negotiations with the White House by passing a bill that could serve as an alternative to any deal that doesn’t give substantive weight to conservative interests. If, for example, the White House refused to concede further entitlement cuts, Boehner could send Plan B to the Senate, and force a vote, thus presenting himself as a sensible negotiator, pace President Obama’s partisan demands.

If House Republicans had basic tactical skills, this might have worked. Instead, the right-wing fringe of the GOP caucus—which sees itself as the brave anti-tax resistance to Boehner’s Vichy regime—rejected Plan B, left the Speaker’s reputation in tatters, and produced an epic fail for the Republican Party. Not only will this hurt them in the court of public opinion—where 53 percent of Americans already see them as too extreme, and 48 percent already plan to blame them if we “go over the cliff”—but it’s certain to hurt GOP interests in any future attempt to deal with the fiscal cliff.

In a press conference this morning, Boehner insisted that a Republican-crafted solution is still possible, but the fact of the matter is that—if last night is any indication—nothing will pass the House without significant Democratic support. In other words, any fiscal-cliff bill that passes the House of Representatives before January 1st will likely have substantial input from Nancy Pelosi and other liberal Democrats. And if we go over the cliff? Democrats will possess most of the leverage, and will be able to shape a solution far more favorable to their interests than the one floated by President Obama earlier this week.

As for Boehner? He’s in a tight spot. If he wants to maintain his speakership—and avoid massive tax increases—he’ll have to craft a fiscal-cliff solution that will pass muster with the more reasonable but still right-wing half of his caucus. Anything less—i.e., a deal that leans heavily on Democratic support—will almost certainly lead to the end of his speakership.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for Boehner’s predictament. For the last two years, he—and the Republican leadership—has indulged the most conservative elements of the GOP, signing off on an endless pattern of brinksmanship and hostage-taking, even when it came at the expense of the economy. Indeed, it’s gone on for so long that Boehner no longer has control—the inmates now rule the prison, and they’ve directed their energy toward opposing new taxes on the rich at any cost.