Politics & Policy

Inside the Meltdown

“How the hell can you do this?”

At a quarter to 8 p.m. on Thursday night, House Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement for an urgent, closed-door conference meeting. The scene was hushed and confused. Instead of huddling in a windowless room, members thought they’d spend the evening on the House floor, voting on “Plan B,” Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff proposal. But as they took their seats and looked at Boehner’s face, the reason for the gathering became clear: The speaker didn’t have the votes. The whipping was over. “Plan B” was dead.

Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling. He didn’t want to fight. There was no name-calling. As a devout Roman Catholic, Boehner wanted to pray. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he told the crowd, according to attendees.

There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”

#ad#Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited.

Since the meeting lasted only a few minutes, several members, such as Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, missed the session. As Huelskamp, a leading “Plan B” adversary, rushed to get there, he saw a stream of his colleagues leaving. They were on their phones with aides and family members, sharing the news. They’d be coming home for the holidays since the House was in a state of chaos. Some of them, however, seemed bewildered by the turn of events. They walked slowly down the basement hallway, whispering with other members. One freshman asked a senior member, “Are we really not coming back?” The senior member simply nodded. Almost everyone avoided the press. Feelings were raw. Representative Steve King of Iowa, a frequent Boehner critic, looked at me, shook his head, and said, “I have nothing to say.”

Boehner and his leadership team soon departed. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP whip, who hours earlier was meeting with on-the-fence members over Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his office, left the Capitol looking distressed. So did Eric Cantor, the majority leader, who had spent the past two days wooing backbenchers. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman and recent Republican vice-presidential candidate, strolled out of the Capitol with Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a popular conservative who has expressed his unhappiness with Boehner’s cliff strategy. The pair declined to discuss the drama, but they both looked tired and frustrated.

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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.

#ad#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.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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