There’s a very short fuse on the exploding can*

by Sarah Binder on December 21, 2012 · 7 comments

in Legislative Politics

Is the House Republican Conference the ACME Corporation of our time—selling crazy products that fail at the worst possible moment?  This week’s product was Plan B—a short-lived back up plan hatched by House Speaker John Boehner to give Republicans (and Boehner) political cover should negotiations with the president over the fiscal cliff deadlock.  The plan backfired.  Instead of Republicans leaving for the holidays with the Speaker’s bargaining hand strengthened, evening headlines noted falling financial markets and a GOP conference beholden to its uncompromising far-right flank.

How should we interpret Thursday night’s events and their consequences for resolving the fiscal cliff?  I thought I’d offer some initial observations.

First, even without a roll call vote, Thursday’s drama provides some clues about the conflict roiling the ranks of the House GOP conference.  Most reports last night noted the apparent disbelief of House GOP that Boehner’s plan had failed.  Moderates in the conference knew whom to blame.  As retiring Rep. LaTourette put it, “It’s the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party, and we are going to be seen, more and more, as a bunch of extremists that can’t even get the majority of our own people to support the policies we’re putting forward,” he said. “If you’re not a governing majority, you’re not going to be a majority very long.” Of course, moderates are a dying breed, and so we don’t know for sure how widely his interpretation is held across the conference.  We do know that on the spending showdown in April 2011 and the debt ceiling drama in August 2011, roughly 25 percent of the House GOP conference voted against the final bipartisan agreement.  Tonight’s failed bill reflects that tension in the conference—a rift between legislators who won’t budge from their anti-tax ideologies and those who appear willing to entertain compromise.  For tonight at least, the ideologues won.

Second, I am (perhaps too) slowly coming to the position that it might be impossible to avert the fiscal cliff.  That will certainly be the case if Boehner refuses to bring a deal to the floor that requires Democratic votes for passage.  That wasn’t his position in the spending and debt ceiling showdowns in 2011.  But neither did those bargains require Republicans to vote directly or indirectly to raise anyone’s taxes.  Indeed, House Republicans have steadfastly avoided such votes since they voted against George H.W. Bush’s 1990 “Read my lips” budget agreement.  Old anti-tax habits die hard.  This is probably especially so when the Club for Growth threatens to “primary” Republicans who vote to raise anyone’s taxes.  This dynamic—at once electoral and ideological—may be sufficient to detonate the short fuse left on the exploding can of sequestration and tax hikes.

Third, to avert the fiscal cliff, we may need a replay of the first TARP vote in 2008—the only time I’d ever watched a congressional vote tally side-by-side with a plummeting Dow Jones industrial average.   This time, harsh market and public reactions would be necessary (though possibly not sufficient) to force the hand of the Speaker to go back to the table and negotiate a deal that can pass with Democratic votes.  If the GOP takes a beating in the headlines and markets tank, rank and file GOP might demand that negotiations resume.  It’s Boehner’s job as party leader, after all, to build and protect the party’s brand name.   Of course, that requires Senate Republicans—and their leader Mitch McConnell—to feel the heat too.  Absent whiplash from markets and voters, “that’s all folks.”

Fourth, Thursday’s turn of events raises uncertainty about Boehner’s future as Speaker.  I doubt Boehner will boot any more of his colleagues off of their committees: All four of the deposed committee-men voted against the first leg of Plan B tonight.  (Perhaps tossing a fifth-generation farmer—Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas and PhD in ag-policy—off of the Agriculture committee wasn’t a show of strength after all.) Speaker “Czar” Joe Cannon exploited committee assignments to punish disloyal colleagues at the turn of the last century, and his  colleagues eventually retaliated by voting to declare the Speaker’s chair “vacant.”  throwing Cannon off of the Rules Committee and imposing other procedural indignities.  The parallel to 2012 is imperfect, I know.  But will disgruntled GOP do the same to Boehner?  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.

Finally, I have thought all Fall that—at the 11th hour—neither party would want to bear the political and economic costs of pushing the country over the fiscal cliff.   I reasoned that no president would decide to bring on a “recession by choice,” and that no party would want to be accused of raising everyone’s taxes on Christmas.  Instead, I figured that the parties would either kick the can again or adopt a lowest-common-denominator deal that raised top rates and turned off the sequester—and perhaps promised future savings and revenue.  From Thursday’s vantage point, I misjudged priorities within the Republican conference.  Or, maybe it’s not yet the 11th hour.

*H/t to Mark Spindel for the late night title.

{ 7 comments }

Steve Smith December 21, 2012 at 11:50 am

Not yet the 11th hour and no Repub leader can make a deal until then.

John Patty December 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Nice post, Sarah. In terms of the Cannon analogy, I thought the Republicans declined to accept Cannon’s resignation as Speaker of the House. Regardless, I personally think that if Boehner truly can’t wrangle his colleagues to deliver votes on things like this, then I can’t see any other Republican successfully cobbling together a majority of votes to succeed him as Speaker. Why would any qualified member want to step into his shoes? Unless we believe that Boehner is individually incompetent relative to (say) Cantor, I would think that both Boehner’s allies and opponents would “sincerely” want him to continue as Speaker. :)

Sarah December 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm

You’re right, John. Thanks for the correction and remind me not to write about rules changes in 1910 after 1 am. The killer vote was to strip Speaker Cannon of his seat on the Rules Committee and to take away his power to appoint its members. The motion to declare the Speakership vacant– offered by Cannon– failed.
Sarah

beejeez December 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I’m not getting this. Democrats are pretty much united on introducing a tax cut for the under $250,000 set when the Bush cuts expire. Why would the markets expect Republicans to vote against that?

Scott Monje December 21, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Might Boehner have had more luck if he had been pushing a real bill, one that had a prospect of passing and resolving a real problem, rather than a symbolic vote that was going to put people on record as voting for something they didn’t like without achieving anything directly?

JC December 21, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I think McConnell will be much more likely to see the damage that could occur to the GOP brand if nothing occurs and consent to allowing some sort of package to pass through the Senate. At that point, the key moment will be if Boehner and/or Cantor are willing to allow a bill to pass through the House that would attract majority support from the Democrats, but only the support of a minority of his own caucus.

After all, there are numerous Senate-passed bills (transportation and education reauthorizations come to mind) from the 112th that would pass the House by that type of voting coalition, but the Republican leadership have for obvious reasons been unwilling to give these bills a vote.

Then, if Boehner allows something like that to happen, we will really see what kind of backlash there might be from his conference…

Jake December 22, 2012 at 4:28 am

The reason the Republicans passed the sequester deal language in the bill that became law during last years Debt Ceiling hike debate, was because some savvy republican staffers had the foresight to know liberal John Boner would pull a stupid stunt like the one he “TRIED” to pull off on Thursday night. It seems that conservative republicans in the Republican conference have known for some time how liberal John Boehner really is, and wanted to use the vote that never came last night as the perfect time to get fence sitting conservatives to lose confidence in the speakers leadership abilities and used the (now canceled) vote to show how weak his political skills really are in getting all republicans to support (the now dead) Plan B in the attempt to make it all but certain he loses the vote for electing a Speaker on Jan 3rd when the House of Representatives reconvenes for the 113th Congress. Which is only 2 weeks from now.

I wonder if what happened on Thursday Night would have even happened, had those savvy Republican Staffers last year written the debt ceiling hike bill to not need a patch until after January 3rd instead of the way it ended up being written to occur before the all important “constitutionally mandated” January 3rd date when the House elects the Speaker of the House?

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