But other influential Democrats, such as Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who chaired the Senate campaign committee and would chair the Budget Committee in 2013, and Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus, noted the strategic advantage that the Democrats would gain if the country fell off the fiscal cliff.
Boehner and his staff recognized it, too: All the Democrats had to do was wait it out through New Year’s Eve and the Bush-era tax cuts would expire. It would be better to bargain with the White House, Boehner concluded, using the threat of the fiscal cliff to win some concessions on federal spending, entitlement reform, and just how the tax code defined “wealthy.”
The speaker and his aides conducted a series of “look-ahead conversations” with other members of the House Republican leadership. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, had already held a series of "Tax 101" sessions in the spring to educate members about the tax changes at year’s end.
Boehner’s aides set to work on a speech for their boss – it would eventually go through 18 drafts – to give immediately after an Obama reelection. It would contain Boehner’s first concession: Republicans would support the inclusion of new revenue in a budget deal.
“This is a speech we didn’t want to have to give,” one senior aide to the speaker said. “And, frankly, after the first presidential debate” - when Romney performed so ably – “we didn’t think he’d have to give. We were pretty stoked.”
On Nov. 2, the Friday before the election, Boehner had gathered his staff for a final planning session in his Ohio district. That Sunday, he reflected on the task ahead as a “Team Boehner” campaign bus took him across Ohio. Sitting in a green captain’s chair, dressed in jeans, docksiders, and a red fleece, he was relaxed and confident.
“I still believe it’s Romney [who] wins the election,” he said. “Think about who the economic downturn has hurt the worst: blacks, Hispanics, young people. Fifty percent of college graduates are unemployed. You think they’re going to show up in droves and vote for [Obama] like they did last time? Not going to happen.”
The TV networks, relatively early on election night, concluded that the House would stay under Republican control. But as the battleground states on the network tote boards went Democratic blue in the presidential contest, Boehner’s staff had to dust off Plan O. They kept their intentions closely guarded, choosing the Capitol’s Rayburn Room, which the speaker controlled, as the venue and held members largely in the dark until a few hours before he was set to deliver the speech.
There was one final element of protocol that needed attending. That Wednesday morning, the speaker’s staff sent a text of Boehner’s planned remarks to Rep. Paul Ryan’s aides. The status of the party’s vice presidential candidate, and conservative favorite, needed to be resolved. Soon Boehner and Ryan were on the phone. The speaker told Ryan that the team needed him back, as soon as he was ready. And Ryan told Boehner that he planned to return as chairman of the Budget Committee and offered his support.
Boehner tinkered with the text of his speech up to the final moments, so that his harried aides were making changes directly into the teleprompter.
“The American people have spoken. They have reelected President Obama,” the speaker said. “And they have again elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. If there is a mandate in yesterday’s results, it is a mandate for us to find a way to work together.”
Then Boehner stated his opening position. Any deal must have “real changes to the financial structure of entitlement programs” and “additional revenues, via tax reform.”
“Feeding the growth of government through higher tax rates won’t help us solve the problem,” Boehner said. He ended his talk by saying, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led.”
Boehner had offered higher revenues during the aborted 2011 negotiations with Obama over raising the federal debt limit. But the Plan O speech was still “somewhat uncharted territory,” a top aide to Boehner recalled. “The speaker was saying things that you don’t hear Republicans shouting from the mountain tops.”
A muted reception from the Republican caucus eased concerns in the speaker’s staff.
“I think this gets done,” one Boehner aide confidently predicted. “There’s a sobriety among the members of our side who realize what’s at stake here.”
It looked as if Republicans were moving toward offering more revenue and feeling comfortable with the shift. “We’re coalescing around the idea that revenues are on the table,” said Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, the chief deputy whip, in late November. “That’s a Rubicon for Republicans.”