Speaker John Boehner is getting pretty bad reviews pretty much everywhere for his gambit of submitting a Plan B for a House vote, with Plan B made up of a set of tax policies which can’t possibly become law. Democrats and some centrist types are upset with him because Plan B meant walking away from budget talks with the president just as they were apparently getting close to a deal. Conservatives, meanwhile, are against Plan B because it involves voting for what they consider a tax increase, with rates going up for a tiny group of highest-income filers (up compared with where they are now; of course, rates are scheduled to go up for lots of people if Congress does nothing by January 1). All of which leads to comments about Boehner being a very weak Speaker who can’t control his own conference.

I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. It’s correct that Boehner can’t order his conference to do whatever he wants; nor will they automatically trust what he says. But that’s normal for all Speakers.

So what is Boehner up to? He knows — knows — that the election returns almost certainly meant that tax rates on at least some upper income filers were going to go up,* and that Republicans were either going to have to vote for a bill to set those tax rates before or after the Bush rates expired. What he might not know, however, is whether and to what extent his Members cared about the timing of the vote. How much were they willing to give up to push the bill past January 1 so that they could sell it as a tax cut (even though it would do exactly the same thing as a pre-January vote)?  The Plan B vote might generate some information about that. Anyone voting for it would presumably be willing to vote for an overall fiscal cliff deal this month, after all, and pushing it to a vote might be the best way for Boehner to get a sense of whether he can get the votes for a deal — or if he should just wait until January, even if it risks getting him a worse deal. More than that: it also could give him a sense of whether the Senate-passed taxes-only bill could pass the House. That one is a lot easier; it would presumably get every Democrat and therefore only need a small number of Republicans, whereas an overall deal would probably require a majority of both parties in order to pass (since Democrats wouldn’t support it without Republican votes).

Will it work? Hard to say. It’s easy to imagine Plan B winding up with basically zero votes if it comes up short — I can very much imagine a scenario in which the vote on the House floor stalls at 200, and then everyone flips to “no” before the gavel comes down. While that would give Boehner some information (just the ongoing whip count gives him better information than he would have had without scheduling a vote), itt wouldn’t accomplish the trick of making 218 Republicans on record voting for a tiny bit higher taxes, and therefore presumably more open to voting for a tiny bit more (that is: I think conservatives who are urging a no vote for this reason are basically correct about this).

Remember, at some point, House Republicans — at least some of them, and probably more than half — are going to have to vote for a tax bill which sets taxes higher than a full extension of current rates would set them. It might happen sooner, it might happen later, but it’s going to happen.** Boehner knows that. Every House Republican should, and probably does, know that, although they might not know which of them will have to do it. Come to think of it, Plan B might not just be a method for Boehner to generate information; it also might be a way for him to teach his conference some of the basic facts of what has to happen, and their place in it.

And meanwhile…yeah, it wastes a few days of the Boehner/Obama negotiations, but even there it’s certainly possible that the number-crunchers and the legislation-drafters are hard at work turning their almost-framework into the details they’ll eventually need. And meanwhile: if he learns he has the votes to pass a mega-deal now then he can move ahead with one; if he learns he doesn’t, then he can let everyone go home for the year and avoid the disaster of making a deal and then having it collapse on the House floor.

Put it all together, and I’m not at all convinced that Boehner is making any sort of mistake by scheduling the Plan B vote.

*Almost certainly? Yeah; I think it’s at least vaguely possible in theory that Republicans could have found some trade that Democrats would accept, but in reality they don’t actually value tax cuts for rich people quite that high. For example, what if Republicans said that they would vote for a serious climate bill in exchange for full renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts? Democrats would have to go for that, wouldn’t they?

**Okay, there is one other way out of this for them; the idea they were floating a while back to vote “present” on a tax bill and let the Democrats pass it. Again, part of the question here is whether GOP-aligned groups see any difference in slightly different House Republican actions which deliver the same result.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.