Boehner could not get the proposal through the House. Democrats in that chamber had no interest in increasing Republicans’ leverage. Many Republicans did not want to be seen as voting for tax increases, even if they were actually voting to slash scheduled tax increases. In private, some House Republicans acknowledged that by not voting for Plan B they were making it likely that taxes would end up higher than they would be if Boehner’s strategy succeeded — but suggested it would be preferable to let taxes rise more rather than have their “fingerprints” on smaller tax increases. They could let taxes rise without having to vote for anything, after all.
Boehner was forced to withdraw from the field at this point, and McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden reached a deal instead that allowed $600 billion of the tax increases to take effect. Income-tax rates rose on couples making more than $450,000 a year, taxes on investment rose too, and deductions were phased out for high earners. (It also allowed a payroll-tax cut passed under Obama to expire, an additional $95 billion tax increase.) Many conservatives bitterly attacked the deal, claiming that it included $41 of tax increases for every $1 of spending cuts. The figure was absurd. If letting scheduled tax increases go ahead counts as raising taxes, then letting scheduled spending cuts go ahead — and the deal kept in place $1.2 trillion of cuts that are scheduled to start this year as well — should count on the other side of the agreement, and the ratio is 1:2. If the sequester doesn’t count because it was already put into law, on the other hand, then none of the tax increases can be counted either, for the same reason.
Anger over this figure moved House Republicans to try to pass an amended version of the deal with spending cuts. The effort crashed on the same rocks as Plan B. House Democrats weren’t interested in pulling the deal to the right, and Republicans couldn’t pass an amended version of it without voting “for” higher taxes. Given a choice between a tax code with higher spending and the exact same tax code with lower spending, many congressional Republicans decided that they preferred the higher-spending alternative so long as they did not have to vote for anything that allowed taxes to rise. Like Plan B, the amended deal was never put to an actual vote because it was a sure failure. The House passed the unamended deal, mostly with Democratic votes.
Many conservatives reacted bitterly. Two editorialists, in a typical attack, wrote that Boehner and other Republicans had, “for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but are probably related to panic and a basic lack of principle[,] . . . abandoned decades of principle on taxes.” The deal had tax hikes but no spending cuts. “Nice job,” they added. At no point did these writers mention that the deal moderated the automatic tax increases that were already part of U.S. law, or that this fact may have had something to do with the decisions of Boehner and company. Naturally, they also neglected to cite any evidence that refusing to moderate a scheduled tax increase has ever been a conservative principle. Nor did they note that congressmen who believe in this alleged principle had made it impossible to limit the tax increases further or add spending cuts to the deal. Nice job?
Washington has already moved on to the next budget battle, over raising the debt limit. While the issues are different — there’s no automatic tax increase involved — some of the same patterns of thought and behavior that reduced conservatives’ ability to get their way at the start of 2013 could recur. Nobody in Congress, not even the most conservative legislator, has a plan to bring the deficit to zero immediately. All of them have budget policies that therefore require increasing debt. House Republicans might be able to tie an increase in the debt ceiling to spending cuts, and in that way get the Democrats to agree to those cuts. If 20 House Republicans refuse to vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances, however, then they will not be able to pass any such package of spending cuts. The naysaying Republicans will then, it can safely be predicted, criticize Republican leaders for failing to drive the hard bargain that their own behavior will have made impossible.