As they walked out of a closed door meeting of Republicans in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday night, GOP lawmakers seemed somewhat stunned at the turn of events that had just occurred, as Republican leaders were forced to yank a fallback fiscal cliff plan off the House floor because they did not have enough votes for victory.
And then, Speaker John Boehner delivered the real news – not only would they not vote on the “Plan B” bill, but they were going to go home for Christmas.
“I’m disappointed,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who argued a full fiscal cliff debate would have helped Republicans get out their message on taxes and budget cuts.
“We’re adjourning and going home for Christmas and not coming back until there’s a proposition from the President,” Stearns said.
At first, I thought Stearns was being overly melodramatic, but other Republican lawmakers confirmed that sentiment, saying it is possible the House will not return for legislative business until January, when the 113th Congress convenes.
“Not unless there’s a need for us to come back,” was what one ally of Speaker Boehner told me the Speaker’s message was to him after what was an embarrassing setback for GOP leaders.
Top Republicans had assured reporters all day that they would have enough votes to push through a package that permanently extended the Bush tax rates and tax cuts for all Americans who earn less than $1 million a year.
Even GOP rebels who were vowing to vote against the plan thought their leaders had things sewed up.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
“I think if we don’t get spending under control, we’re going over the cliff,” said Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL), a lame duck who didn’t seem too interested in voting for higher taxes.
“We don’t have a tax revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” said Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), one of the Republican Rebels who said there was no reason for Speaker Boehner to be offering any plan that included $1 trillion in tax hikes over ten years.
But that argument from more conservative Republicans – who loudly proclaimed that they were standing by their principles – gave other GOP lawmakers a big fat headache, worried it had completely undermined the Speaker and the Republican negotiating position.
“This was the best deal we were going to get,” one veteran GOP lawmaker told me from a high powered meeting of Republicans after the vote, saying approval of a plan with a $1 million tax threshhold would have meant a final deal around $750,000.
“We’re going over the cliff,” he said, sounding like he was shaking his head in disgust.
Of course, if there was a deal to vote on – not just a Republican piece of legislation – chances are that some of those rebel Republicans would have their votes offset by Democrats, who might vote for an agreement on the House floor.
But right now, there’s no deal, and the calendar keeps inching its way to the end of the month.
The setback raised a number of questions:
* Will there be a fiscal cliff deal?
* Will the President start negotiating with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell instead of Boehner?
* Will this push the Speaker out of his post?
* Should the Congress just try to fix this in January?
* How will the stock markets react?
Lawmakers will now go home on Friday for Christmas; the Senate will be back late next week, but it’s not clear if the House will return for legislative business at all.
“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,” the White House said in a written statement.
It sounds easy enough.
But so far, it has proven anything but.