At a quarter to 8 p.m. on Thursday night, House Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement for an urgent, closed-door conference meeting. The scene was hushed and confused. Instead of huddling in a windowless room, members thought they’d spend the evening on the House floor, voting on “Plan B,” Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff proposal. But as they took their seats and looked at Boehner’s face, the reason for the gathering became clear: The speaker didn’t have the votes. The whipping was over. “Plan B” was dead.
Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling. He didn’t want to fight. There was no name-calling. As a devout Roman Catholic, Boehner wanted to pray. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he told the crowd, according to attendees.
There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”
Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited.
Since the meeting lasted only a few minutes, several members, such as Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, missed the session. As Huelskamp, a leading “Plan B” adversary, rushed to get there, he saw a stream of his colleagues leaving. They were on their phones with aides and family members, sharing the news. They’d be coming home for the holidays since the House was in a state of chaos. Some of them, however, seemed bewildered by the turn of events. They walked slowly down the basement hallway, whispering with other members. One freshman asked a senior member, “Are we really not coming back?” The senior member simply nodded. Almost everyone avoided the press. Feelings were raw. Representative Steve King of Iowa, a frequent Boehner critic, looked at me, shook his head, and said, “I have nothing to say.”
Boehner and his leadership team soon departed. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP whip, who hours earlier was meeting with on-the-fence members over Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his office, left the Capitol looking distressed. So did Eric Cantor, the majority leader, who had spent the past two days wooing backbenchers. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman and recent Republican vice-presidential candidate, strolled out of the Capitol with Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a popular conservative who has expressed his unhappiness with Boehner’s cliff strategy. The pair declined to discuss the drama, but they both looked tired and frustrated.