Immediately after House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B fell apart Thursday night, Dow futures plummeted and the media freaked out (Huffington Post headline: “END OF THE WORLD“). Boehner and his deputies skulked out of the Capitol, humiliated. His Hail Mary plan to create leverage for Republicans in the fiscal cliff negotiations with Republicans lay in tatters. Soon, his speakership may, too.
But Plan B’s demise doesn’t ensure we’re going over the cliff—it simply narrows the options. And two bits of good news are embedded in the failure. First, if we do go over the cliff, a resolution will arrive sooner than it would have otherwise. That’s because Plan B’s biggest effect, had it passed, would have been to inoculate Republicans against the charge that they blew up the economy to protect “millionaires and billionaires” from tax hikes. Now that they’re vulnerable to that charge, public pressure will be much more intense and likely to elicit a quick concession.
Second, it’s now clear that the only way to avoid the cliff is through a bipartisan bill that can pass the House, probably with substantial Democratic support. The GOP’s self-defeating revolt will shift the center of gravity to the left. Here’s where things get tricky: Boehner has said he won’t bring a bill to the floor unless it has the support of the majority of his caucus. Lost in Thursday night’s disarray was that the overwhelming majority of House Republicans—all but 30 or so of his 241 members—supported Plan B’s tax hike on millionaires. So it’s not impossible to imagine him gaining the support of 121 Republicans (he may need fewer because of vacancies) for a deal that raises taxes on households earning, say, $400,000 or $500,000, especially if that deal also contains cuts to entitlement programs and removes the dreaded sequester.
But gaining that support is far from a sure thing. It’s what Republicans and Democrats are now frantically trying to gauge. If Boehner can’t get a majority of his caucus on board, then he’ll truly be facing the end of the world—or at least the end of his speakership. The conservatives I polled Thursday night agreed (contra some media chatter) that Plan B’s failure doesn’t threaten Boehner’s job. But they also thought that if Boehner were to pass a cliff bill without a majority of his caucus, he’d be doomed.
In a drama Aaron Sorkin might have scripted, Boehner may soon be faced with the choice of holding firm and hurtling everyone into the abyss or saving the country from chaos by passing a Democratic-friendly bill with only a minority of Republicans—at the cost of his speakership, which (more Sorkin drama) is up for a vote on Jan. 3.
Either way, though, there’s a little more certainty this morning that things will end sooner rather than later. So despite the hyperbole and market turmoil, last night’s vote actually brought some good news.