On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner was very close to reaching a fiscal deal with President Obama. On Wednesday, Boehner was moving away from his own negotiations, presenting a transparent p.r. stunt as an alternative, and finding that his own Republican colleagues have very little interest in following his lead.
In his extremely brief press statement yesterday afternoon, Boehner boasted in passing that the House "will pass" his plainly ridiculous "Plan B." The bravado was misplaced -- the Speaker proceeded to spend the day pleading with House Republicans to do as he asked, and was even forced to add new spending cuts to his doomed proposal in the hopes of enticing his own GOP caucus to help bail him out of the jam Boehner put himself into.
Making matters slightly worse, Boehner was forced to scrap a scheduled vote on Obama's original offer -- tax breaks on all income up to $250,000, higher marginal rates for higher income -- in part because it might pass (which would undermine the Speaker's leverage) and in part because he couldn't risk it failing (if all else fails, he might need to pass it before Dec. 31).
And in case these troubles weren't quite enough, an analysis of "Plan B" from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center concluded that "nearly half of households in the top one percent would see a small tax cut under Boehner's plan," thanks to cuts in taxes on capital gains, estates, and dividends, while "lower and middle income households would see a tax increase under his plan," thanks to the elimination of existing tax policies designed to help working families.
John Boehner, in other words, isn't having a great week.
But there's a larger thesis to keep in mind, regardless of what happens in today's House vote: the Speaker is ostensibly the leader of the House Republicans, but he remains incredibly weak, heading a group of lawmakers who are largely indifferent to his preferences.
Kevin Drum had a good piece yesterday, noting just how little has changed "in Republican-land," even after the Democrats' successful 2012 elections.
Boehner just flatly doesn't have the support of his caucus for a real deal. So he makes up weird stuff about interest expenditures "not counting" as a pretense to reject Obama's latest offer, and then tosses out a plainly unserious plan as a way (he hopes) of creating a land mine for Democrats.
This is grade school stuff. Apparently, there's simply no way to make a deal with House Republicans. Boehner is doing his best to mask that uncomfortable fact, but that's where we're at. The lunatics are still running the asylum.
Quite right. Keep in mind, by all indications, Boehner was encouraged by Obama's latest offer, so much so that he took it to his Republican colleagues for consideration. In a familiar dynamic, the followers told the leader what to do -- Boehner "got an earful" about the president's offer from his own team, with Republicans explaining how "angry" they are about Obama's proposal.
And so, Boehner was left in a very awkward, almost pathetic, position. He can negotiate an agreement with the president, but he can't get House Republicans to go along. The Speaker can push a ridiculous "Plan B" in a bit of Kabuki theater, but Republicans don't like it, either, and it can't pass the Senate or get the president's signature (the White House issued a formal veto threat yesterday).
Oh, and did I mention that Boehner is just days away from a vote on whether he'll be Speaker in the next Congress?
Boehner can't negotiate with the president and he can't avoid negotiating with the president. He doesn't want a failed fiscal process and he can't find a solution that will prevent a failed process. He can't endorse a good deal, because his radicalized party won't let him, and he can't endorse a bad deal, because it won't become law.
What a fiasco.