Last fall, as members of Congress were home campaigning and America’s attention was focused on the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, top aides to House Speaker John Boehner huddled to devise a winning strategy for the looming fiscal cliff.
Chief of Staff Mike Sommers, policy director Brett Loper, and communications chief Dave Schnittger gathered each week in H-128, the high-ceilinged “Board of Education” room, one floor beneath the House chamber, where the legendary Sam Rayburn had hosted his cronies for whiskey and gossip during his long reign as speaker. It was in that room that, in 1945, then-Vice President Harry Truman learned of Franklin Roosevelt’s death and felt, he said later, like “the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
Boehner’s aides prepared two blueprints: a “Romney Wins” and an “Obama Wins” scenario. A Romney win – Plan R - would generate less pressure: The new Republican president would make his thinking known, and Boehner would follow his lead. But the calculus changed, fundamentally, if Obama won reelection and the Senate stayed in Democratic hands. Boehner would then be the nation’s leading Republican elected official. It would be up to him to counter the president, oppose huge tax hikes, and resolve the fiscal cliff. He would have to act boldly--and quickly.
This is the story of Plan O – the congressional Republicans’ failed attempt to meet the challenge of Obama’s victory. It begins in September and ends in the fiasco of the Christmas season, when the speaker was repudiated by his own troops and had to pull his last, desperate solution from the House floor, leaving Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to cut the best deal he could with dramatically diminished leverage.
In the end, despite all the planning and forethought, Boehner would stand almost helplessly by as the nation plunged off the fiscal cliff and a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and centrist Republicans voted to give Obama the big tax hikes he demanded on the wealthy. House Republicans saw the worst of all worlds: They failed to save tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, put no new checks on government spending, and showed themselves a fractious and disorganized opposition party, the governance of which in the new Congress will prove to be a serious test.
The speaker, however, had been fighting a two-front war all along. On one front was Obama, invigorated by an election mandate, a united party, and advantageous political terrain. On the other front was the conservative bloc of the House Republican majority, resolute in its opposition to Obama and higher taxes, pressured by right-wing political interest groups and media, and fearful of being challenged in the party primaries.
(PICTURES: A Look Back at the Fiscal Cliff)
Looking back, it appears that Boehner and his team underestimated the strength and conviction of the forces he faced on both fronts, or – recognizing the brutal odds - plunged ahead with a high-risk plan while knowing he would likely lose.
The fiscal crisis facing Washington was a noxious mix of ingredients of expiring tax provisions and automatic spending cuts that were brewed over time with this much in common: a witching hour on New Year’s Eve. As the two parties confronted each other on the morning after Election Day, the political calculus was different at each end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
After losing eight seats in the 2012 election (and saving their majority, in large part, via redistricting), Boehner and his troops had to plan for 2014. A string of polls showed that most Americans were inclined to blame Republicans for gridlock on the Hill, undermining the speaker’s threats to use the risk of not patching the alternative minimum tax, or the turmoil surrounding the federal debt limit as leverage. If Republicans emerged from the crisis with a reputation as hidebound obstructionists, shouldering the blame for a ruined economy, they could suffer at the polls in the 2014 midterms.
But many members of the Republican caucus worried more about staving off a challenger in the party primary than the threat of being defeated by a Democrat in the general election. No more than 15 to 18 House Republicans won election in congressional districts that were carried by Obama on Election Day, according to an analysis by The Cook Political Report. There were other reasons for Republicans to be confident, as well. In all the off-year elections in the sixth year of a presidency since World War II, the opposing party has historically picked up seats – and never lost the House.
Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said repeatedly that Democrats felt a deep sense of duty to create jobs and improve the economy for the party’s constituencies, and so desperately hoped to avoid the cliff. Pelosi suggested, as long ago as May, that the party could support a compromise that extended the Bush income tax cuts on the first $1 million in revenue, far above the $250,000 level favored by the president.