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Saturday, Dec 22 2012 10:00 PM

DANA MILBANK: Boehner loses grip on reins of animal House

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    Dana Milbank

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On Wednesday night, senators took a break from the hard work of rescuing the nation's finances. They summoned Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg, ordered in popcorn, and watched the movie "Lincoln."

After Thursday night's debacle in the House -- in which Speaker John Boehner had to pull his own tax bill from the floor for lack of votes -- Republicans in that chamber may wish to schedule a movie night of their own. Perhaps they should consider an earlier Spielberg film: "Jurassic Park."

In Boehner's House, the animals are rampaging.

The outcome should have been obvious, perhaps, when Boehner named his proposal Plan B, better known as an emergency contraceptive. But instead of gaining negotiating leverage by getting House Republicans on board for a modest tax hike on millionaires, Boehner birthed a rebellion that ended in public humiliation.

As Thursday night's vote approached, Republican leaders, realizing they didn't have the votes, shut down the chamber, canceled plans to be in session on Friday and sent members home until after Christmas. In a private meeting, Boehner bid them good riddance with a prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change."

A beaten Boehner stood before the cameras Friday morning to give a postmortem. "It's not the outcome that I wanted," he said, but "that was the will of the House."

PBS's Linda Scott asked if he was concerned about losing his speakership, and "in light of what happened last night, if you're not concerned, shouldn't you be?"

"We may have not been able to get the votes last night," Boehner said, adding, unconvincingly, "I don't think -- they weren't taking that out on me." He departed the stage with an ironic "Merry Christmas, everyone."

What happens next -- with the cliff or Boehner's speakership -- is anyone's guess, but it is plain to all that House Republicans are running wild. The disaster was compounded by days of buildup and confident predictions.

"Yes, we're going to have the votes," Majority Leader Eric Cantor pronounced Thursday morning, boasting that they were "taking concrete actions to avoid the fiscal cliff."

In the afternoon, Boehner, too, predicted success. "After today, Senate Democrats and the White House are going to have to act on this measure," he said.

But as afternoon turned to evening, the nose-counting told a different story. The Hill newspaper reported that it had found at least 25 Republicans ready to oppose the bill; if Boehner lost more than 24, he wouldn't have the 218 needed to pass it.

Rather than start the debate, the speaker pro tempore, Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., declared a recess "subject to the call of the chair."

The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez heard retiring Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., quip: "Subject to Santa Claus finding 218 votes for John Boehner."

Boehner issued a written surrender. "Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff."

Thursday night's rebellion, by shifting responsibility to the White House and the Senate, actually increases the likelihood of tax hikes, but the rampaging Republicans weren't contrite on Friday morning. "The speaker has been talking about tax increases -- that's all he's been talking about," Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said on MSNBC. "That's been the frustration."

As if to demonstrate just how unreasonable he could be, Huelskamp added a gratuitous opinion that those seeking stricter gun control after the Newtown shooting are "politicizing the issue." This drew a rebuke from the host, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough.

We now know there are at least two dozen House Republicans as unreasonable as Huelskamp, and perhaps many more. Their most important constituent is the Club for Growth, which funds primary challenges to Republicans who are insufficiently pure in their conservatism. Thursday afternoon, the Club issued a "key vote alert" saying it would punish with lower rankings those lawmakers who voted for Boehner's plan.

That left Boehner weak and dispirited Friday morning as he talked about prospects for a broad agreement. "How we get there, God only knows," he said.

He likened his position on his failed proposal (which would have prevented a tax hike on all people but millionaires) to being a lifeguard who sees 100 people drowning in a pool and can't save them all. "If I can go in there and save 99 people," he said, "that's what I should do as a lifeguard."

But his rampaging Republicans have a different philosophy: Let 'em all drown.

Email Dana Milbank of The Washington Post at danamilbank@washpost.com.

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