Is a deal still possible? Can John Boehner survive as speaker? Why did he try this Plan B idea, anyway? A guide to what to expect in the weeks ahead.
Disaster on Capitol Hill! Fiscal cliff chaos! Trying to sort through the disorder that erupted in Congress Thursday night? Here's a handy FAQ.
What just happened? House Speaker John Boehner couldn't get Republicans to vote for a tax increase. His "Plan B" consisted of a pair of bills: one containing spending cuts, the other allowing taxes to rise only on incomes over $1 million. The spending-cut bill squeaked through early Thursday evening with zero Democratic votes. That was a sign that the tax-hike bill, which would be harder for Republicans to support, was in danger. Boehner gathered his members in the Capitol, recited the alcoholic's serenity prayer, and announced that he was pulling the bill because it didn't have the votes. The House has gone home for Christmas, and possibly for the year.
What did Boehner think he was doing, anyway? "Plan B" was a risky gambit intended to create leverage for the GOP by putting the ball back in the court of President Obama and Senate Democrats. The idea was that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would be forced to take up the $1 million tax hike bill and alter it to his liking, which would mean getting Democrats to agree to an alternate tax-hike threshold. Would it be $250,000, which Reid barely got through the Senate over the summer with 51 votes, one of whom has since died? Would it be $400,000, which Obama had tentatively agreed to in negotiations with Boehner? Would it be $1 million, which Senate Democrats previously also approved in a symbolic vote, and which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for back in May? The debate and division would be on the Democratic side, and Republicans' recalcitrance and disarray would be, at least temporarily, out of the spotlight.
Why didn't it work? Both Republicans and Democrats refused to go along. Boehner had reason to believe he could round up the votes. He has spent months currying favor with his often-unruly caucus; many of the 2010 freshmen and Tea Party conservatives have cooled in temperament since the overheated days of the debt-ceiling fight a year and a half ago; the November election (and plenty of polls) provided a lesson in where the public stands; the House conservatives who opposed the plan had no clear ringleader; even Grover Norquist, author of the no-taxes pledge signed by most GOPers, endorsed Plan B. But other conservative activists, such as the national Tea Party group FreedomWorks, organized against it. Congressmen's offices were flooded with calls from angry constituents. Republicans from conservative districts feared primary challenges. Boehner also may have thought he'd get a handful of Democratic votes, but the White House, Reid, and Pelosi immediately announced their strong opposition to Plan B, and Pelosi aggressively organized her members against it. And so Boehner's plan went down in flames, leaving him weakened, his party discredited, and the nation a step closer to the fiscal cliff.
Now what happens? In the not-so-encouraging words of Boehner at a Friday news conference, "God only knows." But as everybody takes a few days off for Christmas -- and many senators head to Hawaii for the funeral of the late Senator Dan Inouye -- there's some hope that the hiatus will clear people's heads. Boehner says he has not stopped talking to Obama. The stock market also wasn't freaking out in reaction to the House meltdown early Friday, though it dipped slightly -- a sign that going closer to the cliff, or even briefly over it, might not immediately tank the economy.
Doesn't this prove nothing can ever pass the GOP-led house? Nope, for two reasons. First, any compromise plan would presumably have some Democratic support. With that on his side, Boehner wouldn't need the unanimous GOP vote he sought for Plan B. Second, once Jan. 1 comes and tax rates for everyone automatically go up, anything Congress votes on becomes a tax cut rather than a tax hike. That could be a far easier sell for even conservative Republicans.
Is Boehner in danger? The speaker is badly damaged, with his own constituents -- his Republican caucus -- as much as anyone. He must run for reelection as speaker on Jan. 3, and though any revolt is embryonic right now, the grumblings are likely to grow. As one GOP House insider told me after Thursday's debacle: "He just lost the respect of the caucus. No one thought he was capable of fucking this up like this."