By Molly K. Hooper, Peter Schroeder and Russell Berman - 12/21/12 02:53 AM EST
Moments before announcing defeat to his GOP colleagues, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recited the Serenity Prayer often heard at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
According to sources in the room, a “distraught” Boehner broke the news that his leadership team couldn’t convince enough GOP lawmakers to vote for a measure that would prevent automatic tax hikes from taking place for all but those individuals making more than $1 million.
Instead, the House would wait for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama to act on measures that the House passed earlier this year.
Following the meeting, Boehner told The Hill that the House would return “when we’re needed.”
Boehner’s deputy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), told the members that they would break for Christmas, and would receive “48 hours notice” if they need to return to act on legislation passed by the Senate.
But after a day and a half of intense lobbying on the part of the GOP leaders, rank-and-file members were stunned to learn that Boehner's team was giving up the fight.
"I've never seen anything like it where leadership just completely backed down. I guess they made an assessment that the people who were no votes were entrenched no votes, because otherwise I think they would have just pulled it and they would have worked it longer,” Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R) told The Hill.
Coffman called the meeting “awful." "It's the first time I've ever seen leadership retreat. It was a real shock - the Speaker looked shocked,” he said.
A separate lawmaker said that Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a former Notre Dame football player, got up to make a rousing speech encouraging the leadership to keep twisting arms to get the votes needed for passage.
"No it's not over ... Whip! Tell me how short we are in votes," the lawmaker told The Hill, describing Kelly's remarks.
After House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said "too short," Kelly "gives his impassioned speech, this incredible speech about how when he was a kid he had a list of everything he wanted for Christmas and he didn't get everything but he was happy with what he got,” the lawmaker said.
Still, leaders wouldn’t budge.
People were saying "take the count again, but the leadership just wouldn't. ... [T]hey never shared with us what the vote count was. They gave scant detail - they didn't say why the conference was divided ... nothing,” the member said.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) told The Hill that a number of members were frustrated that they had to stick their necks out time and time again, only to be met with Senate inaction on House-passed measure.
"Nobody thinks the Senate's going to do anything and they are getting tired of taking the tough decisions and then the Senate's not going to do anything - like they did with the budget - just refuse to do anything,” Bilbray said.
One such discontented lawmaker, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), delighted at the news that he learned second-hand, since he was several minutes late to the abrupt meeting.
"It's one I wish I had been at," he said. "I was hoping to be on the front row for an announcement like this."
Later, Huelskamp released a statement in which he said that "Republicans should not be forced to vote for a 'show' bill that asks us to compromise on our principles. For the last two years, the agenda has been 1) to end job-killing tax hikes and 2) to foster economic growth for revenue; 'Plan B' abandons those goals – and our convictions right alongside them.”
Huelskamp has been nursing a case of sour grapes since he lost his seat on several committees as a result of “not being a team player,” according to sources familiar with the situation.
But for those individuals skeptical of “Plan B,” pulling the bill was a show of weakness on the part of the GOP leadership – hence the shock in the room when Boehner announced the decision to go home, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) told The Hill.
"A mixture of being stunned and, well, disbelief was the overriding emotion. And anger, you're going to get people who are angry," he said.
LaTourette, a longtime Boehner ally, was visibly frustrated by the development.
"It weakens the entire Republican Party…It's the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party, and we are going to be seen more and more as a bunch of extremists that can't even get a majority of our people to support our own policies that we're putting forward," he said. "If you're not a governing majority, you're not going to be a majority very long."
The Speaker’s inability to win support from 218 members of his own conference, after scheduling floor action on his highly publicized GOP plan to avoid automatic tax hikes on January first, was a major “a blow to his negotiating leverage” that he may have going forward in talks with the White House, several GOP members agreed.
As anticipated, Democratic lawmakers were quick to gloat over Boehner’s inability to corral his conference.
Washington Rep. Rick Larsen (D) accused the Republicans of turning the “the fiscal cliff into a fiscal comedy of errors.”
“Republican leaders just admitted they cannot even pass their own bills. Instead of working with Democrats to find a solution, they are leaving their responsibilities behind and fleeing the Capitol. The only solution is for Republicans to return to the negotiating table with President Obama and Congressional Democrats to find a balanced deal. Democrats are ready, but Republicans just went home,” Larsen said.
As for Boehner’s standing within his own conference, LaTourette said he didn’t think the Speakership was in jeopardy.
“It’s like saying the superintendent of an insane asylum should be discharged because he couldn’t control the crazy people. That’s nuts,” the outgoing lawmaker told reporters.