A day of rhetorical bluster in the House of Representatives ended with a slap-dash rush for the exits Thursday, as conflict among Republicans appeared to upend the course of ongoing talks between Speaker John Boehner and President Obama to avoid the package of tax hikes and spending cuts known as the “fiscal cliff.”
On Friday, Mr. Boehner argued that the vote debacle did not signal any changes for better or worse in his stalled negotiations with Mr. Obama.
"Nobody ought to read anything into this. We've got differences, but the country's got big spending problems and we've got to get serious about addressing them," Boehner said Friday. "The president knows that I've always been able to deliver on any promise I've made with him."
Boehner and House Republicans had spent the past week chiding Obama for not being serious about avoiding the fiscal cliff, noting that the speaker's "fallback plan," which would have let Bush-era tax cuts lapse for millionaires, showed their own willingness to compromise. The now-dead measure would have preserved those income-tax rates for 99 percent of taxpayers – and would have allowed GOP lawmakers to counter the contention that Republicans are mainly intent on protecting the interests of the wealthy.
But the House leadership badly miscalculated. House majority leader Eric Cantor had vowed that Plan B had enough GOP support to pass without a single Democrat, but a firestorm of dissent among the most conservative GOP interest groups evidently triggered second thoughts among lawmakers. Those groups decried Plan B as tantamount to a tax hike and promised to hold lawmakers to account for supporting it – and whether by pressure from outside groups or lawmakers' own consciences, that issue is the one that sunk the vote.
"There was a perception created that that vote last night was going to increase taxes. Now I disagree with that characterization of the bill, but that impression was out there. And we had a number of our members who just didn't want to be perceived as having raised taxes. That was the real issue," Boehner said Friday.
Streaming from a late-night, closed-door caucus meeting, lawmakers made clear that no vote would be held after all. Instead, they would be going home until after Christmas.
Moreover, House Republicans appeared to be throwing up their hands at deficit-reduction negotiations, with several GOP lawmakers leaving the meeting Thursday night falling back on cries of support for bills that their caucus approved months ago and that were left for dead by the Democratic-led Senate.
“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass,” said Boehner in a statement. “Now it is up to the president to work with [Senate majority leader] Senator [Harry] Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.”
Earlier in the night, one conservative freshman who said he would oppose Plan B bill sounded a note similar to that of the speaker.
The House has passed bill after bill that the Senate has sent straight to the trash in the past two years, said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina. That has led him to conclude that the president and Senate Democrats are simply not willing to get to a deal.
While Representative Mulvaney says he is concerned that the recent discussions show a lack of seriousness by Democrats on cutting spending, what’s at least as important for him is to see a sign from Democrats that they want to get a deal.
“You might get a different response from a lot of people in here tonight if the bill had already been passed by the Senate,” he said before the Plan B bill was pulled.
Conservative groups and lawmakers who opposed the bill – 13 Republicans voted against a procedural move to get to the Plan B bill earlier in the evening –hailed its collapse.
“Republicans should not be forced to vote for a ‘show’ bill that asks us to compromise on our principles,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas, who voted against moving the bill and who was stripped of his committee assignments earlier this month for running afoul of party leadership. “For the last two years, ‘the job creator’ has been a priority; ‘Plan B’ kicks him to the curb. And, for the last two years – particularly in the last two weeks – we have been told that the problem is too much spending, not too much revenue; Plan B neglects our obligation to cut.”
The White House was succinct in its response.
“The President’s main priority is to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days,” read a statement from Jay Carney, White House press secretary. “The President will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy.”
But earlier in the day, Mr. Carney may have more directly laid out the predicament facing House Republicans.
“Instead of taking the opportunity that was presented to them to continue to negotiate what could be a very helpful, large deal for the American people, the Republicans in the House have decided to run down an alley that has no exit while we all watch,” Carney said.
“What I’m confident of,” he later continued, referring to a scene from a recent Batman film, “is that [Republicans] don’t have ... a Batplane to fly out to their own rescue.”