House Speaker John Boehner had a strategy: strike a deal with President Obama on looming fiscal deadlines, get it passed, and look like a competent policymaker capable of governing. That plan fell apart last week when Boehner's own allies forced him to scrap the negotiations.
So, the Speaker came up with a new strategy: pass a plainly ridiculous "Plan B," send it to the Senate, dare Democrats to defeat it, and avoid blame when everything fell apart. That, too, crashed and burned when Boehner couldn't convince Republicans to have his back.
Left with no "Plan C," it's come to this: hope the Senate can figure something out.
After a high-level telephone conference call, House Republican leaders called on the Senate to act but opened the door to bringing to the House floor any last-minute legislation the Senate could produce.
"The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate first must act," said the statement issued on behalf of Speaker John A. Boehner and his three top lieutenants.
If you're thinking, "Wait, this doesn't make any sense," you're not alone. For one thing, the Senate already acted, passing a bill to freeze lower rates on income up to $250,000, and the House GOP leadership is choosing not to take up the Senate version. For another, there's a Democratic majority in the Senate -- are Harry Reid and his caucus expected to just guess what kind of plan can generate some modicum of Republican support?
Speaker Boehner looked rather pathetic last week when his own caucus -- which he ostensibly leads -- betrayed him and ignored his own fiscal plan, but his new tack adds insult to injury. The nation's most powerful Republican is, in effect, telling the political world, "I tried, I failed, and now I'm out of ideas. Maybe the other party in the other chamber can save the day."
Complicating matters, Senate Dems are willing to make some kind of effort this week, crafting a package that they find reasonable, but they're only prepared to move forward if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will agree to skip the filibuster, and as of yesterday, McConnell was unwilling to make such a commitment.
There's a reason no one is optimistic about a resolution coming together before Monday.
Looking ahead, keep an eye on four key elements.
1. What does Reid have in mind? If Senate Democrats try to craft a package intended to represent a middle ground, Reid may be in the untenable position of negotiating with himself, making concessions in the dark, hoping the GOP will go along. How far will he go? Will he move the $250,000 threshold preemptively?
2. Will a Senate bill give Boehner leverage over his own members? If the Senate does manage to pass something -- a big "if" -- the pressure on the House will be very intense. The Speaker would be in a position of telling House Republicans, with almost no time remaining, "It's this or nothing." If the GOP chooses the latter, Boehner may be forced to go to Nancy Pelosi, hat in hand, which may in turn imperil his Speakership. If the Speaker fails to pass a Senate compromise, there will be no avoiding public blame.
3. Will McConnell play dealmaker? The Senate Minority Leader isn't adept at public policy or current events, and as recently as two weeks ago, McConnell seemed to be completely lost on the basics of the fiscal debate. That said, he knows exactly how to strike deals -- when he wants to. In this case, however, fearing a backlash back home, the Kentuckian prefers to lay low and do nothing.
4. Are Democrats looking ahead? A week from today, the Senate Democratic majority gets bigger (and more progressive), the House Democratic minority gets bigger (and more progressive), and the pressure on Congress will be overwhelming to resolve the standoff. Don't underestimate the Democratic desire to wait and see how much better the deal may be after the deadline than before it.