By Russell Berman - 12/21/12 02:51 AM EST
Short of votes, House Republicans pulled Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” tax bill from the floor late Thursday, testing the Ohio Republican’s hold on his conference and throwing year-end efforts to avoid the fiscal cliff into further chaos.
Party leaders had voiced confidence throughout the day they had enough Republican votes to pass the measure over unified Democratic opposition, but amid mounting defections, they announced shortly before 8 p.m. that the vote would be canceled.
After a closed-door conference meeting, the Speaker said it was now up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama to find a way to avert the tax hikes and spending cuts set to be triggered in January that economist warn could start a recession. He told The Hill that the House would come back “when needed.”
“The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass,” Boehner said. “Now it is up to the president to work with Sen. Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.
“The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the Jan. 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation’s crippling debt. The Senate must now act,” Boehner said.
Boehner was referring to legislation approved by the House in August that extended all of the Bush-era tax rates. The Senate, which did not take up the House bill, has approved legislation that extends tax rates on annual income below $250,000, which would allow rates on higher income to increase.
One Republican in the conference meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said after Boehner addressed the conference, freshman Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) took the microphone and emotionally laid into his colleagues.
“What are you guys doing?” Kelly said. “How the hell can you do this to the Speaker?”
Shouting ensued among members, and then Boehner returned to the microphone to calm lawmakers down, telling them there were people “of good will” on both sides of the issue, the House Republican said.
The bill pulled from the House floor Thursday extended current tax rates on annual income up to $1 million but allowed rates to rise for taxpayers earning more.
Senate Democrats had vowed to shelve the bill, and President Obama threatened a veto, arguing that Boehner’s push for the legislation was a waste of time that could have been spent better in negotiations.
The Speaker had argued that his fallback plan was the best the House could do in the absence of a broader deficit agreement with the president.
He had suggested earlier Thursday that Reid was bluffing when he said the Senate would ignore the legislation. But by the evening, Republicans were the ones who had overplayed their hand.
House Republicans emerged from their brief conference meeting in shock and disarray.
“We have different approaches to this problem, and we just couldn’t get enough consensus,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. “I opposed it. There weren’t enough votes to make it pass … without us being on the same page with the same strategy, we decided as a group not to move forward.”
“This is a victory for conservative principles,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.). a conservative stalwart who frequently opposes leadership. He held a press conference on Wednesday to denounce Boehner’s bill.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said that the country should not necessarily believe it is going over the fiscal cliff.
“The negotiations with the White House are ongoing,” he said. “So we’ll see.”
“I am disappointed, of course,” he said.
Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) told reporters that Boehner told lawmakers that they might return after Christmas or they "may not come back at all this year."
A Boehner spokesman said the Speaker did not address the schedule in the meeting. A spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said "members were told they could be called back with 48 hours notice."
“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,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said in a statement.
“Speaker Boehner’s partisan approach wasted an entire week and pushed middle-class families closer to the edge. The only way to avoid the cliff altogether is for Speaker Boehner to return to negotiations, and work with President Obama and the Senate to forge a bipartisan deal,” Jentleson said.
The drama on Thursday was in many respects a reprise of the debt-ceiling debate in July 2011, when Boehner was forced to pull a Republican proposal off the House floor for lack of votes. In that instance, he added measures to please conservatives and pass the legislation the next day.
This time around, Republican leaders had already made a concession to conservatives by allowing a separate vote on a measure to replace the $109 billion in across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending. Boehner’s tax bill contained no spending cuts and did not replace the cuts from sequestration, angering many Republicans.
But when that bill came up for a vote earlier Thursday evening, it passed by a narrow margin, 215-209, with one Republican voting present. No Democrats voted for the bill.
Before the bill was pulled, the mood among rank-and-file GOP lawmakers was grim.
Asked for his prediction on how the fiscal-cliff standoff would end, retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said, “We get our clocks cleaned. That’s how it ends. There’s no leverage here.”
Another retiring member, staunch conservative Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), shared that view, saying Republicans were in a tough spot going up against a reelected president whose approval ratings are on the rise.
In the latest Gallup survey, 56 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s job performance compared to 37 percent who disapproved, matching his highest rating in three years.
To lead the debate on the spending bill, Boehner turned to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House budget chief who spoke on the floor for the first time since his bid to become vice president fell short.
“Look, elections have consequences,” Ryan said. “I, of all people, understand that.”
“What we are trying to do here is limit the damage to the taxpayers. There is not a single tax increase in here,” he added, adopting a line of argument that Republicans had decried weeks earlier.
— Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson contributed.
— This report was originally published at 8:00 p.m. and last updated at 9:51 p.m.