What failure on fiscal deal means for troubled Boehner

Posted at 7:54 AM, Dec 22, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-22 07:54:46-05

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Roughly six weeks ago, Rep. John Boehner was reelected unanimously by his colleagues as speaker of the House of Representatives. They cheered and applauded him in an ornate hearing room on Capitol Hill.

But on Thursday, many of those same Republicans abandoned Boehner in droves, rejecting his Plan B to avert the fiscal cliff and raising questions about his future.

Thursday night’s epic meltdown in the House GOP conference came at a defining moment for Boehner. As he has done several times in the past two years, the speaker attempted to persuade conservatives who campaigned against any compromise to support his strategy, putting pressure on Democrats to agree to what these members demanded: more spending cuts.

But Boehner’s own members refused to go along, and some conservative and tea party groups began to call Friday for him to step down.

Ned Ryun, founder of one conservative group called American Majority Action, posted an article on harshly critical of Boehner: “He should save the Republican Party the embarrassment of a public leadership battle and resign.”

But most Republicans say it’s premature to say that this episode means Boehner’s speakership is in jeopardy.

Texas Rep. John Carter said he believes that the House GOP will stick with Boehner.

“If he resigned or something, that would have been different, but I don’t think there’s any threat, and I don’t think there’s any serious opposition out there,” said Carter, a former member of Boehner’s leadership team.

Carter conceded that outside pressure on Boehner to step aside could affect “a few people” but not enough to threaten his position.

Boehner argued that passing his Plan B bill, allowing tax breaks to be extended for all those making less than $1 million, demonstrated that the GOP was trying to preserve as many tax cuts as possible. But his failure to get enough Republicans to back the plan only raised questions about his failing to get many in his conference to back the plan.

Boehner said he’s not worried about losing his job and repeated an answer he’s used before when asked about being in a tough spot politically.

“If you do the right things every day for the right reasons, the right things will happen,” the speaker said. He explained that some House Republicans were worried about public perception of supporting tax increases, adding, “I don’t think, they weren’t taking that out on me.”

One senior House GOP aide quipped that many rank and file members who criticized Boehner’s negotiation strategy didn’t understand that his effort would have given them some political cover at a time when Congress’ ratings are at rock bottom. “These guys are pizza store owners, not Republican strategists.”

During recent skirmishes, some looked to the No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor, to step in, but Cantor was part of the leadership effort pushing Plan B this week and publicly predicted that it had the votes hours before they pulled the bill. And Cantor’s presence beside Boehner on Friday morning signaled that he’s staying with the speaker.

Multiple Republican members and aides say there is no current member who has enough support to mount a real challenge.

Some point to former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, but he has shown no interest in the job, and he publicly backed Boehner’s Plan B strategy, even in the face of opposition from many of the same groups who hold him up as key leader. Georgia Rep. Tom Price, who ran unsuccessfully for the fourth slot as House GOP conference chairman, has been floated as a possible successor, but few believe he is serious about taking it on, because he couldn’t muster substantial votes.

Carter argued that a move to unseat Boehner could be worse for the party. “He’s done yeoman’s work in a tough job. I don’t see us replacing the speaker. Actually, we would create more crisis that we would create solutions if we did that.”

Even some of the Republicans who opposed the speaker’s plan refrained from blaming Boehner and instead shifted their anger at President Obama, who they say isn’t leading.

“He is my speaker, and I support him strongly; he’s in a very difficult position,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-Louisiana, adding that he simply disagreed on giving any ground on taxes.

“Raising taxes on any American, to me, is not the right message,” he said.

Another Republican leadership aide said that as vulnerable as Boehner seems to many on the outside, “this probably strengthens Boehner’s hand internally. He avoided forcing members from taking a vote many of them didn’t want to have to take.”

As GOP leaders worked to get the votes for Plan B on Thursday, they felt that they had the majority of GOP members on board but knew that without Democrats’ support, they needed to get almost all their members to support the bill. Many of the undecided told leaders that if it was the final deal, they would vote yes, but since they knew it would change, they didn’t want to go on record giving in at all on taxes.

Thursday night was for bad for Boehner, but he faces trickier terrain in the days ahead. Few expect further negotiations between the speaker and the White House to yield any deal.

Boehner said Friday that if the Senate came up with a compromise, he would take a look at it. But after his own strategy fell apart, he’ll be faced with presenting his members with something they like even less. Boehner will then have to evaluate the personal and political cost of pushing a plan in the face of further defections.

Boehner said on Capitol Hill that he still wants a significant agreement that includes both taxes and spending but admitted, “how we get there, God only knows.”