Earlier this evening, House Speaker John Boehner was forced to pull a vote to prevent tax increases on those earning less than $1 million, because he didn’t have the votes. This has led many to assume that the nation is now going over the “fiscal cliff” and some to speculate that Boehner’s speakership is in danger. But I’m not quite so sure of either.
Keep in mind that during last year’s fights over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling, Boehner wasn’t able to unify his members, so he cut a deal with President Obama that passed the House with the help of Democrats. We don’t know exactly how many votes Boehner was short tonight, but we do know that he had little margin for error going in — he could only lose 23 Republicans, assuming Democrats held firm. Were Boehner instead to cut a deal with Obama that could attract Democratic support, it would give him a greater cushion. Going back to last year, 59 Republicans voted against the deal to avert the government shutdown and 66 voted against the deal to raise the debt limit — and yet both measures sailed through comfortably with Democratic support.
So, why would Obama want to cut a deal with Boehner rather than go over the cliff? Why would he throw a lifeline to Boehner when he has the upper hand and has good reason to believe he would win the post-cliff PR battle? Though there are many reasons to believe that Obama would prefer to go over the cliff at this point, there are also plenty of reasons to believe that he doesn’t want to. Past behavior is often a reliable predictor of future behavior. In the past, whenever there’s been a showdown with Republicans, Obama has chosen to cut a deal. Also, just as businesses often agree to settle lawsuits to avoid long-drawn out legal fights (even if they think they would win them), Obama may just want to get this over with. He may want to remove uncertainty — economic uncertainty, the uncertainty as to whether a long protracted fight does begin to reflect poorly on his leadership, and so on. He may not want the distraction as he starts his second term. And perhaps he’d be especially inclined to cut a deal if he could win an extension in the debt ceiling, delaying another showdown.
Let’s say, then, that Boehner does go ahead and cut a deal with Obama, which in all likelyhood would be worse than the “Plan B” option that failed tonight. Would there be a major revolt among House Republicans that would topple him as speaker? Perhaps. But maybe not. People have been too willing to assume that the defeat of “Plan B” is a rejection of Boehner as a leader. But these are two separate things. Speaking to members today, the sense I got was that rank and file Republicans understand the difficult position Boehner has been put in, with the tax cuts expiring automatically, Obama as president and Democrats in control of the Senate. So, many conservatives may have felt they needed to oppose “Plan B” so they didn’t get their hands dirty voting for what they saw as a tax increase (or perhaps they just feared how it would play in a potential primary challenge). But, these same members could still give a pass to Boehner, recognizing that he’s in a tough spot. Just as long as they get to keep their own hands clean and campaign as true conservatives who stood up to Obama.
To be clear, I wouldn’t be shocked if we went over the cliff at this point. But everything that’s happened so far has followed a familiar pattern, and we’ve always ended up with a deal. So, I’ll keep assuming there’s a high likelihood of a deal, until the Times Square ball drops and rings in 2013 without one.