nowhere man

I couldn’t think of a more fitting story on my last day of blogging to symbolize the nature of our government than the aborting of Plan B, wherein House Republicans couldn’t even pass a messaging bill with no chance of advancing. Sometimes we’ve seen Speaker Boehner miscount the votes – the most notable time I can think of was an initial vote reauthorizing the Patriot Act, when some civil libertarians revolted – but not on a pure messaging bill.

In the aftermath, nobody can help but try to analyze the strategy going forward. The White House’s statement basically gave up on everything in the fiscal slope but the tax rates, saying “The President’s main priority is to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days.” Harry Reid’s spokesman said that ”
“It is now clear that to protect the middle class from the fiscal cliff, Speaker Boehner must allow a bill to pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes.”

Surely, that’s the conventional wisdom. If Republicans can’t even get a bill done where they get everything they want out of the deal (including cutting Meals on Wheels, food stamps, all kinds of anti-poverty programs, and holding the military and Wall Street harmless) but raising tax rates on not even 0.5% of the population, what compromise measure could get more than token support?

But Boehner, following the Iron Law of Institutions, probably cares more about his position as Speaker than forging a deal for the country. Which means he cannot possibly put forward legislation that would get 190 Democratic votes and 20 Republican ones until he gets re-elected Speaker January 3, and maybe not even then. There’s also the question of whether a rump caucus even exists among House Republicans, especially… after January 3. Sure, there are a few lame ducks now who would commit to raising tax rates above $250,000 and going home – Steve LaTourette, Mary Bono Mack, just to name a couple. But they’re both headed home after 2012. I know that bipartisan bills occasionally get through the House – it’s how TARP got done, and the 2011 debt limit deal – but none of them raised taxes.

Then there’s the question of what’s still operative. I agree with Dan Burton (shudder) that Republicans may consent to a bill purely cutting taxes on the first $250,000 in income, after the Bush tax cuts sunset. But would the leadership say that, since the President offered the concession to raise the dividing line to $400,000, they won’t go any further than that? The only way to square this is for President Obama to publicly take his last offer off the table, saying that, given the demise of negotiations, he’s returning to his initial position and won’t sign any legislation that extends tax cuts for rates above $250,000. This is what Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO counseled yesterday. The Press Secretary’s statement, in referencing 98% of individuals and 97% of small businesses, actually alludes to the $250,000 dividing line.

But the President is still hunting a deal, and might want his options open for something that splits the Republican caucus. But again, you get to the dead end of there not being enough House Republicans, even if you find something that House Democrats grudgingly accept, to pass a bill that raises tax rates in 2012. I just don’t see it. Nothing shows you more about how ideologically aligned against taxes that caucus is than last night. And the White House desperately needs that fig leaf of a tax rate hike to accomplish a deal, purely for public relations purposes if nothing else. Republican intransigence stopped the grand bargain again.

So these strategic considerations are I think a non-starter. So is wondering about the Obama offer, with its chained CPI and the rest. There’s no negotiating partner on the other side, and Democrats can’t pass something by themselves. That’s why I’m fairly resigned to going over the slope. Preferences are really out the window at this point; it’s what will happen.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias offers a slatepitch that’s the complete opposite view. I really don’t see it. The bill last night represented a maximalist, Republicans-get-everything-they-want view of something with tax increases in it. Anything less than that – i.e. something that could get wide Democratic support – would be rejected wholesale by the Republican rank and file, because a) Obama wants it and b) they wouldn’t get everything they want, making the tax lift harder. There’s also a difference between sticking with leadership on a messaging vote and sticking with them on something that could pass into law.

Photo from Speaker Boehner under Creative Commons license.