By Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper - 12/21/12 10:34 PM EST
John Boehner’s grip on the Speaker’s gavel appears to be secure, despite a personally embarrassing and politically damaging defeat Thursday at the hands of his fellow Republicans.
The House Republican conference refused to deliver the votes to pass the Ohio lawmaker's “Plan B” tax bill to prevent much of the fiscal cliff, sapping the Speaker of leverage in the climactic days of his year-end negotiations with President Obama and Democratic leaders.
“This was not a vote of no confidence in the Speaker,” freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), an opponent of Boehner’s Plan B legislation, said in an interview. “This was a legislative defeat, not a personal defeat.”
Another vocal critic of the Speaker’s proposal, Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), said: “He is my Speaker, and I support him.”
Asked if the conference was angry at Boehner, Fleming replied, “No, the frustration is with President Obama.”
Boehner has watched bills fail on the floor several times during his two-year tenure, but none of those losses appeared to be as wrenching for the Speaker as what happened on Thursday night. After leaders assured reporters they had the votes throughout the day, Boehner abruptly canceled the vote shortly before 8 p.m. and led his members in an emotional prayer before dismissing them from the Capitol.
A source close to the leadership operation said that Boehner is "still in good standing with the members," and that he has not been calling lawmakers to ensure their support for him on Jan. 3.
Even though pulling the bill may have weakened his leverage at the negotiating table with Democrats, several conservatives told The Hill that Boehner helped himself in the conference for not forcing them to vote on a tough bill.
When asked if Boehner's Speakership was in trouble, freshman Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) — a conservative in the majority-making class of 2010 — gave a resounding "Hell, no!" to The Hill on Friday morning.
A close friend of the Speaker’s, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), said he spoke with Boehner and indicated he was holding up well after the defeat.
“He was disappointed, but he is pretty resilient,” Chambliss told The Hill. “He’s going to enjoy the holidays, and we’ll see where things go.”
Another friend of Boehner’s, retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), dismissed the possibility of a challenge on Thursday night. “It’s like saying the superintendent of an insane asylum should be discharged because he couldn’t control the crazy people,” he said. “That’s nuts.”
Boehner has faced more criticism from conservative activists outside Congress. The group American Majority Action on Friday pushed for him to resign, but that call was not joined by other groups that opposed his legislation.
At a press conference Friday morning, Boehner said he was not worried about losing the Speakership.
“No, I’m not,” Boehner said in response to a question at the Capitol, where he was joined by his chief lieutenant, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
The Speaker attributed Thursday’s setback to “a perception” that his proposal raised taxes, an assessment he said he did not share. The legislation did not explicitly increase tax rates, but for years before the November election, Republicans, including party leaders, had argued that such proposals when offered by Democrats were de facto tax hikes.
Boehner said he was “proud” of his members and did not interpret the rejection of his bill as a personal rebuke.
“Listen, you’ve all heard me say this, and I’ve told my colleagues, if you do the right things everyday for the right reasons, the right things will happen,” he said. “While we may have not been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases, I don’t think … They weren’t taking that out on me. They were dealing with the perception that someone might accuse them of raising taxes.”
Democrats have sought to fan the flames around Boehner and the perceived threat to his Speakership. In a floor speech Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reveled in the failure of his bill and surmised that Boehner was “more concerned about his reelection as Speaker.”
“I like John Boehner, but gee whiz, this is a pretty big political battering he’s taking,” Reid said.
Boehner is personally well-liked by most House Republicans, and even some of the most vocal conservative critics of his strategy over the last two years have said they sympathize with the difficulty of his position.
Another reason for Boehner’s job security is that there are few viable alternatives in the House GOP conference, and Boehner has worked deliberately to keep in close counsel with the handful of members with the stature to challenge him. After reports of discord in 2011, Cantor has worked in lockstep with Boehner in recent months and backed his concession to Obama since the election, first on new revenue and then on higher tax rates for millionaires.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and a favorite of House conservatives, has maintained a lower profile but signed on to Boehner’s Plan B and defended it on the House floor Thursday. Shortly after the election, the Speaker invited Ryan and two other influential committee chairmen to join daily leadership strategy sessions on the fiscal cliff.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) was spurned by the leadership in his race for conference chairman, but after his name was floated as a possible Boehner challenger earlier this month in the National Review, a spokeswoman said he was not running for Speaker.
More than an outright challenge, Boehner’s bigger concern may be if he suffers 16 defections during the Jan. 3 vote on the House floor, which would mean he would fall short of the majority necessary to be reelected. But although Boehner could lose the votes of a few members, such as those whom the leadership kicked off committees last month, a groundswell of opposition remains unlikely.
One conservative House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the only way Boehner’s position is likely to be in serious jeopardy is if he agrees to raise the debt ceiling in a fiscal-cliff deal with Obama without significant concessions on spending cuts and entitlement reform from the president.
“If he gives away the debt ceiling, he’s in trouble,” the member said.