Had there been a vote on Republican House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" to avert the so-called U.S. fiscal cliff on Thursday night, it would not have been close. He was probably 40 to 50 votes short of the number he needed to avoid a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own party, according to rough estimates from Republican members of Congress and staff members.
It was not for lack of effort. Boehner and his two top deputies, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, along with other House Republican leaders, tried for three days to muster support for the measure, which would have cut government spending and raised taxes on millionaires to head off across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts set for January.
They failed for a variety of reasons, according to interviews. But chief among them was this: They were asking anti-tax conservatives to take a big risk for no discernable reward. Plan B, as Boehner named his alternative to President Barack Obama's proposal to raise taxes on earnings of $400,000 a year and above, would never become law because the Democratic-controlled Senate would not pass it. Nor was it likely to put pressure on Obama to reach a deal, as Boehner intended.
Indeed, based on interviews with Republican members of Congress and some of their staffers, the wonder is not that Plan B crashed and burned, but that Boehner apparently thought - and announced in advance - that it would fly.
For Republican members of Congress like John Fleming, it was kind of mystifying.
Fleming, of Louisiana, said he was getting emails from people who raise money for campaigns saying, "'If you support tax increases without significant cuts ... don't even bother to call me.' The conservatives and donor class have laid the gauntlet down. They get that their taxes may go up, but they don't think that there is any reason to make that kind of sacrifice as government spending goes up."
With Senate Democrats and Obama making clear that they would not go along with Boehner's Plan B, said Fleming: "Why would we put ourselves on record" in favor of "raising taxes for a bill that's not going to become law?"
A staff member to a Republican congressman expressed the sentiments of some members more colorfully. "You don't come out and announce you have the votes when you do not have the votes," she said. "It's like saying 'Here's the flaming bag of poo. We're going to leave it on your doorstep and run.' That doesn't look like you're a leader."
Boehner had talked with members one-on-one in his Capitol office, on the telephone and on the floor of the House. "He told them, 'This is important ... This will empower our position ... this will put Democrats in a difficult position,'" said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership whose job it was to argue Boehner's case.
"Some of the freshmen members said they had been contacted frequently and had long conversations," said Fleming. "As far as anyone complaining about being threatened or berated, I never heard anything like this," he said. Fleming, a supporter of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, said that McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, contacted him to find out why he was opposing the leadership.
"He asked me why I was voting (no)," Fleming said. "I gave him my interpretation. He listened very patiently. He came back with a couple of responses. At the end he had to admit some of my points were good points, that this bill would not do some of the things that needed to be done."
But, Cole said, dozens of members convinced themselves that Boehner's bill amounted to a tax hike despite evidence to the contrary.
"Some people really really really really talked themselves into believing it was a tax increase even though Grover Norquist, of all people, said it wasn't," said Cole, referring to the anti-tax activist responsible for "the pledge" not to raise taxes that most Republicans sign. "That is like me talking myself into believing something is a sin even though the Pope tells me it is not," Cole said.