Inside the Meltdown
“How the hell can you do this?”

House Speaker John Boehner addresses reporters in Washington, D.C., December 20, 2012.


Robert Costa

Upstairs by the House floor, which was now closed after Boehner’s announcement, a handful of senior members discussed the whip count. They decided to go out for drinks near Union Station, in order to avoid their colleagues who’d be hanging at the Capitol Hill Club on the House side. “I don’t want to talk to the people who ruined this, at least right now,” a retiring House member told me. “They don’t get it.” Another senior member told me that Boehner was always going to struggle with the whip count since most House conservatives have little interest in seeing the speaker strike any kind of deal. “Boehner was trying to play chess and the caucus was playing checkers,” he said, sighing. “Boehner is willing to lose a pawn for a queen. I’m not sure about the rest.”

Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, a conservative with libertarian leanings, was stunned. As he walked back to his office, he said the episode was unfortunate, even though he was planning to vote against the measure. For the past month, since House leaders booted him off the budget committee, he has been railing against Boehner for his management style. But even Amash wondered whether the House GOP was making the right move. “Too many people in there were arguing that this thing is a tax increase, and I don’t think that’s what Boehner was trying to do,” he said. As much as he disagrees with Boehner’s approach, even he regretted how the speaker’s plan was killed.

Aides to House leaders stayed later than their bosses, talking to reporters and trying to spin the collapse of “Plan B” as something better than a complete failure. As the clock neared 9 p.m., they tried mightily to project strength, but the energy among all Republicans, members and staffers, was sapped. There were no upbeat talking points, no chummy gaggle. This is a talkative bunch of people, but on this dreary night, not so much.

Their deflated spirits were understandable. Earlier in the evening, House Republicans appeared to be close to passing “Plan B” with the requisite 217 votes. There are 241 Republicans in the House, and Boehner could risk 24 defections. In the final public whip count, which was documented by The Hill, fewer than 20 conservative members were opposed to the plan. But things began to fall apart in the early evening, when the margin on a spending vote was narrow. That vote was part of Boehner’s “Plan B” package, and a replacement for the defense sequester. Since that vote was narrow, the vote on Boehner’s larger plan to extend most tax rates would probably be even narrower, leadership aides predicted.

So, GOP leaders called for a recess, and spent the dinner hour doing a final try for 217. All day, McCarthy’s whips were very nervous about where “Plan B” stood, but for the most part, they didn’t let their uneasiness show. They thought that Boehner would find a way to get there. Boehner, who rarely gets involved in the whip process, spent Wednesday night on the House floor, shaking hands and talking with members, asking them for their support. He also went to a meeting of McCarthy’s whips, and encouraged them to make a hard sell.

But when conservatives, over and over again, refused to budge, Boehner personally decided to end the entire thing and pull it from the floor. If he didn’t have the support of his conference on his own plan, he’d walk away. He’d leave the fiscal cliff in the hands of Democrats. Boehner had spent weeks negotiating with his members and the president. But in this final hour, when he needed Republicans most, he had only a prayer.

Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.