With the spectacular and very public failure of a Thursday night vote to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire for millionaires, House Speaker John Boehner now faces a certain truth: any fiscal cliff deal he cuts will rely on Democratic votes.
It was always likely that Boehner was going to pick up some Democratic support if the deal included a de facto tax increase on the wealthiest Americans and the president supported it. The big question facing Boehner now is just how many Democrats he will need, and whether he can bring a bill to the floor that does not even have majority support from his own caucus.
Boehner did not rule out that possibility Friday and while he said he was proud of the conference for sticking by its principles, he disagrees, a sign he is not given up hope for a getting a deal.
"There was a perception created that that vote last night was going to increase taxes. Now I disagree with that -- with that characterization of the bill, but that impression was out there. Now, we had a number of our members who just really didn't want to be perceived as having raised taxes," Boehner said.
Risks to Boehner's speakership be damned, Democratic leaders are anticipating they may have to join him in large numbers to pass a bill.
“There’s no rule preventing him from allowing the entire House to work its will, Democrats and Republicans together, and that may mean that we have to pass something that does not have 50 percent of Republicans on board,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told National Journal.
Van Hollen said the only question that remains is whether a deal gets struck now or within the first two weeks of the New Year – meaning the door is open to cutting a deal after the leadership election, which could be a saving grace for Boehner. But, Van Hollen added, “I think we should do it immediately.” He declined to delve into the prospect of working with a Republican other than Boehner at the helm of the House.
One GOP member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak openly, predicted the country "would go through the cliff, [President Obama] will figure out what deal he can cut, it'll go through the Senate and we'll have to pass it out," he said.
That may force Pelosi and Boehner to collaborate, a task for which they have shown little appetite up until now. In an encouraging sign, they had a short meeting in the corridors of the Capitol today as they left the House floor after a pro-forma session.
“Neither one is going to want to force more colleagues than is absolutely necessary to support it,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Both sets of leaders will have their reputations on the line and it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.”
While Boehner is taking his lumps now in the media, there was a strategy at work, designed to gauge what the Republican conference could stomach. It's too early to say if the gambit will pay off, but Boehner has an idea of where his members stand now.
"I think what they were doing here with Plan B was a vote-counting operation. Intelligence gathering," said John Feehery, a one-time aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Hastert said he was puzzled by Boehner's strategy and said his own greatest successes came when he worked behind the scenes.
"I don't know what his game is. … John is doing what he thinks he has to do," Hastert said in an interview.
Pelosi has been publicly urging Boehner to cut a deal, saying that the job they have both held requires sacrifice and tough votes. Last week, she likened the fiscal cliff deal to a vote to fund the Iraq War she brought to the floor in 2007 as a newly elected speaker. To gain the support of her caucus, she had to separate the war funding measures from the rest of domestic spending so that many Democrats, herself included, could vote against it (the measure passed with Republican support).
“Do you know what it was like for me to bring a bill to the floor to fund the war in Iraq, a war predicated on a misrepresentation to the American people?" Pelosi said, adding that some members have still not forgiven her.
“So it's tough, but you have to do it,” said Brendan Daly, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's former communications director, who now works at Ogilvy Public Relations. Ultimately, he said, it did not damage her speakership.