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Boehner's Power Outage Dimming Obama's Options As Well

House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a press conference Friday on Capitol Hill.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a press conference Friday on Capitol Hill.

The most important measure of power on Capitol Hill can be summed up with a question: "Do you have the votes?"

For House Speaker John Boehner, the answer once again appears to be "no." In a move that's hard to view as anything short of humiliating for the speaker, Boehner had to shelve his own "Plan B" fiscal-cliff-avoidance proposal Thursday evening after it became clear he couldn't get enough fellow Republicans to support it.

The embarrassing failure is being widely interpreted as a critical blow to Boehner's leadership. When a speaker can't get the votes, after assuring everyone he can, it's hard to spin that as anything but a Washington power outage of sorts.

And, perhaps, an existential threat to his speakership.

Failing to get the votes on his Plan B, maybe he also won't be able to garner enough support when House members meet on Jan 3. at the start of the new Congress to pick their leaders? There is certainly a movement among some conservatives to remove him.

Boehner's inability to get his own Republican conference to line up behind him not only increases doubts about him remaining speaker in the new Congress; it also raises a more immediate question for President Obama: Who in the House can he negotiate with in the effort to avoid the large automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will occur in less than two weeks without an agreement?

On the question about his seemingly threatened leadership, Boehner put on a brave face at a Friday news conference. Asked by a reporter if he was concerned about being ousted as speaker, Boehner said:

"No, I'm not. ... While we may not have been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases, they weren't taking that out on me. They were dealing with the perception that someone might accuse them of raising taxes."

It's fair to ask, however, if the speaker was accurately taking the temperature of his conference on Friday, since he was so wrong as recently as Thursday when he and his leadership team said they had the votes to get Plan B passed.

Plan B would have made permanent the Bush-era tax rates on taxpayers reporting incomes less than $1 million. Boehner apparently planned it as a way to pressure Obama into moving closer to the Republican position during cliff negotiations.

It theoretically also would have provided some political cover if Obama and Congress failed to reach an agreement to derail the automatic tax increases that kick in Jan. 1 and the spending cuts that follow on Jan. 2. But it obviously was a miscalculation, since Boehner emerged with nothing except the appearance of further weakness.

Thursday's debacle was reminiscent of Boehner's past failures as the GOP House leader to get conservatives onboard on a matter of urgent importance to the economy.

In 2008, as House minority leader, he initially failed to get enough Republicans to support the TARP bank bailout. (In fairness, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi had trouble getting all her Democrats behind TARP, as well.)

In 2011, House conservative hard-liners, many aligned with the Tea Party, rejected Boehner's attempts to get them to agree to a debt-ceiling compromise, forcing him to rely on Democrats for the votes needed to pass the legislation that created the fiscal cliff enforcement mechanism.

As Congress expert Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, writes on The Monkey Cage blog:

"Thursday's turn of events raises uncertainty about Boehner's future as Speaker. ... I think it's too early to know whether the conservatives who derailed the final vote on Plan B will be satisfied with the message that they've sent to Boehner. It's also too early to know whether rank and file Republicans will heap blame on their most conservative colleagues or on their leader (or both) for Thursday night's debacle."

Earlier in December, Boehner appeared to have strengthened his hand inside his conference. He approved committee reassignments for some of the most conservative House Republicans who constantly annoyed GOP leadership by not voting the way their leaders wanted them to. And there appeared to be some rallying around him by the House Republican conference.

But that was short lived. So now the question is, "What's next?"

Boehner could turn to House Democratic leader Pelosi and agree on a proposal that could pass the House with Democratic votes and get through the Senate. But that obviously wouldn't help him with his hard-liners in his effort to remain speaker.

As Jared Bernstein, an economist who worked in the Obama White House for Vice President Biden, writes on his blog: "John Boehner teaming up with Nancy Pelosi to pass a tax increase — even on just the top few percent — is likely outcome."

It might seem to make little sense for the president to reopen negotiations with Boehner at this point, since the speaker couldn't even wangle enough Republican votes for his own proposal. If Obama and Boehner do resume talks, it might be with the understanding that whatever Boehner takes back to Congress may ultimately have more Democratic than Republican support. And that opens a range of issues for Boehner.

It would be an understatement to say that the possibility of a deal seems to be wilting fast, like an unwatered Christmas tree. In fact, it's beginning to look a lot like Cliffmas, everywhere you go.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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