House Speaker John Boehner was dealt a major defeat Thursday night. After spending most of the week trying to round up votes for his "Plan B" to extend tax cuts for virtually everyone, he pulled the measure without a vote and sent the House home for Christmas. The clock keeps ticking toward the end of the year, when automatic tax increases and spending cuts are set to hit.
Early Thursday, Boehner expressed confidence not only that his bill would pass but that the Democratic-controlled Senate would feel so much pressure, it would be forced to consider it, too.
"I am not convinced at all that when the bill passes the House today that it will die in the Senate," Boehner said early Thursday.
It turns out he was wrong — very wrong. And the problem was his fellow Republicans. Boehner's bill would have extended tax cuts for income up to a million dollars. But it also would have raised taxes on those who make more than that.
That made some conservatives, like Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, uncomfortable.
"I want to protect everybody," Mulvaney said. "I think everybody pays too much in taxes so I am looking for some way to protect everybody."
Around the time the bill should have been up for a vote, Boehner gathered his conference in the basement of the Capitol and told them he wouldn't bring it up. His whip team had counted the votes, and they didn't have enough.
"He couldn't get the votes for this proposal," said Steve LaTourette, a retiring representative from Ohio. "At the end of the day, you can't make people vote."
Many of the unconvinced were freshmen elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, the most vocal of the bunch, said the speaker was asking his members to take a vote that violated conservative principles. The conservatives rebelled.
"This is not Republican material," said Huelskamp. "I think that's probably why they wisely pulled the plug and said, 'OK, let's regroup.' But regroup and reassess — you know, what exactly do Republicans stand for? — and pushing things that we can pull together on instead of divide ourselves on."
The speaker is stuck, said LaTourette. "He can only play with the cards he's dealt. The voters have populated our conference with this set of representatives, and he does his best to work with them. But sometimes your best isn't good enough in the face of some people that just don't want to find common ground."
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at California's Claremont McKenna College, feels for Boehner.
"To quote the great philosopher John Belushi in Animal House, my advice to the speaker: 'start drinking heavily,' " he said.
Pitney can't figure out why the speaker would make such a public push if he didn't have the votes lined up to begin with.
"If he brings a proposal to the president, the president's going to say, 'Look John, how do I know you're going to get the support of the members of your conference?' That's an extremely weak hand to be presenting when you're dealing with the president. Where this ends up, I don't know," Pitney said.
To those on the inside, the end game isn't any clearer.
California Rep. Buck McKeon, a Boehner ally, walked out of the conference meeting discouraged, saying, "I don't know how we can get out of this mess."
McKeon added that the speaker might not get any credit for it, but Boehner wants to do what is right. "And he thinks with divided government we should be able to do big things, and we can't do anything, and this is really, really sad," McKeon said.
The White House issued a statement late Thursday night saying the president will work with Congress and hopes to find a bipartisan solution quickly.
There's not much time left. Congress doesn't plan to return to Washington until two days after Christmas.