WASHINGTON — Speaker John Boehner on Thursday night abruptly halted his effort to pass fallback legislation to prevent a fiscal crisis in less than two weeks, after conservative rank-and-file Republicans refused to back legislation that would allow taxes to rise even on the most affluent households.
The decision represented an embarrassing setback for Boehner as he was engaged in tense fiscal talks with President Barack Obama, and it came after the Republican leadership had spent days trying to round up support for his measure, which would extend lower tax rates on all income below a $1 million threshold. The decision left the state of negotiations to avert a year-end combination of automatic tax increases and spending cuts in disarray.
"The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," Boehner said in a statement issued about 8 p.m. — the time the House had initially set for approving his bill. "Now it is up to the president to work with Sen. Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff."
After an earlier series of votes, House Republican leaders called an emergency meeting to try to rally enough votes for passage. But within minutes, dejected Republicans filed out of the basement room in the Capitol and announced there would be no votes to avert the so-called fiscal cliff until after Christmas. With his "Plan B" all but dead, the speaker was left with the choice to find a new way forward or to try to get a broad deficit reduction deal with Obama that could win passage with Republican and Democratic votes.
"Some people don't know how to take yea for an answer," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who supported the measure and was open about his disappointment with his colleagues.
In a statement released a short while later, the White House said the president's "main priority is to ensure that taxes don't go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days. The president will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy."
The decision to call off the vote came after the House voted narrowly to cancel automatic, across-the-board Pentagon cuts set to begin next month, and shift them to domestic programs. The vote on Plan B was to serve as Boehner's backup plan to avert a fiscal crisis next month and to shift blame to Democrats — or at least to strengthen his hand in the coming days as he negotiates a more comprehensive deficit reduction deal with Obama.
But the House Republican leadership's three-day struggle to wrangle the votes for the speaker's plan seemed only to underscore how difficult it will be to find Republican support for any bipartisan deficit deal. The vote to cancel the military cuts, expected to be relatively easy, was a close 215-209 vote. Even a routine procedural vote to take up the speaker's tax bill passed by a surprisingly tight 219-197, with 13 Republicans bolting from their leadership to vote "no." Recalcitrant conservatives were balking on allowing taxes even to rise on incomes more than $1 million a year.
"I want something that treats everybody fairly. I think everybody needs to be protected, and I don't think the bill does that," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who opposed Plan B.
With broader budget talks between the speaker and Obama stalled, Boehner had vowed to force through his measure, which would extend Bush-era tax cuts on income less than $1 million in an effort to put pressure on the Democratic-controlled Senate to avert a year-end collision of automatic tax increases and spending cuts.
"I've done my part," said Boehner, putting the ball in the Democrats' court. "They've done nothing."
But with days to go before more than $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts kick in, a chasm separates congressional Republicans from Obama, even though the latest deficit offers from the president and the speaker are numerically very close.
The 13 Republican "no" votes on the procedural motion included members who have long been a thorn in the speaker's side, including three members his leadership threw off their committees — Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas — who had never before voted against a rule. But they also included influential conservatives like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who heads the conservative Republican Study Committee, and backbenchers like Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, not known as trouble for leadership.
The struggle to muster the votes for Plan B played out against a surreal tableau in the Capitol. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died Monday, was lying in state in the Rotunda. Boehner spoke briefly with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, as they watched the somber memorial service for Inouye in the morning. Then the two men blasted each other hours later. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican whip, could be seen bending arms on the House floor.
"The speaker should be meeting with us to get our views on things rather than just presenting his," Amash said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney accused the speaker of failing to keep his Republican troops in line behind even his own offers, the latest of which promised $1 trillion in new revenues over 10 years. Boehner retorted that Obama has proved "unwilling to stand up to his own party" to demand changes to Medicare and Medicaid needed to keep the government from bankruptcy.
Reid accused House Republicans of wasting almost a week on "pointless political stunts" and said he would not bring the House measure to the Senate floor even if it passed the House. He was making plans to bring the Senate back after Christmas in case of a breakthrough as the fiscal deadline approached.
"Get back and start talking to the president," he told House Republicans.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.