Referring to his plan to preemptively send the Senate a House-passed bill, Speaker John Boehner told his conference this morning that he’d “rather throw a grenade than catch a grenade.” But with his right-wing troops abandoning him again, it was the speaker who was left holding the bomb.
After a day of furious negotiating with fellow Republicans over how to tweak a bill he had unveiled in the morning, it was left to stunned members of his leadership team to confirm to reporters that the vote had been canceled.
“They’re trying to work it out,” said Representative Greg Walden, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman.
Pete Sessions, chairman of the Rules Committee, kept in character and put a positive spin on an obvious disaster for the GOP.
Boehner “made a decision that what we’re going to do is allow us to take the night and make sure all of our members know what’s going on. We’re trying to make sure that what we’re doing, people know about and they can prepare and study for,” Sessions said, going on to pin the lack of action on the Senate. “You know what? We’re waiting for the Senate to get their work done. We had no reason to necessarily have to do anything,” he added, when I asked him what it says about the House GOP that Boehner couldn’t bring the bill to the floor.
“It’s all over. We’ll take the Senate deal,” says a senior GOP aide. Senator Mitch McConnell’s office quickly noted to reporters that the Kentucky Republican would be taking back the lead.
A key moment in the fight came when Heritage Action announced it was “key voting” against the bill. Support was already flagging, and the decision made up the minds of many members sitting on the fence.
“People are thinking about primaries, they really are,” says a GOP chief of staff.
Although leadership had been working to amend the bill throughout the day to cater to GOP critics, the final iteration Boehner landed on provoked head-scratching among much of the GOP conference.
Conservatives had pushed to eliminate the repeal of the medical-device tax, worrying that it appeared to be crony capitalism benefiting a small business constituency, and to apply the Vitter amendment’s language to staffers as well as lawmakers, thinking it appeared hypocritical.
Leadership went along with both changes but added nothing new to the bill. One argument in favor of that, put forward by Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas, was simplicity. Womack said including only one additional provision would have made it far easier to beat the messaging war drum in favor of the bill.
But for many others, the smallness of the “Vitter amendment,” coupled with removing what was a significant, if targeted, policy victory, provoked confusion and wrath.
“You ever think you’d see the day where Republicans would demand removing language that delays a tax?” wondered a third GOP aide. “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”
The canceled vote was no Twilight Zone episode, however, but something far too familiar. Republicans eagerly compared it to the fiscal cliff’s famous “Plan B” episode, when Boehner brought lawmakers into a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, said the serenity prayer, and told them the vote was canceled.
The Christian rite accompanying legislative chaos today was Florida representative Steve Southerland’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” — “all three verses,” said Representative Michael Burgess (Texas) afterwards in amazement.
But Southerland is an undertaker by trade, and the song is normally sung at funerals. It’s hard not to see’s today’s failure as the death of the House GOP’s role, in at least this standoff.