The big news from late last night is that John Boehner’s so-called Plan B, a measure chock-full of Republican goodies which was guaranteed to die in the Senate, failed in grand fashion. It was only ever a CYA vote, a fig leaf for Boehner so he could blame the Democrats for not passing it, but the galloping extremism of House Republicans tripped him up again. Here’s David Dayen with some context:

This is astonishing. Boehner spent three days talking up Plan B, which you just don’t do without the votes in hand. But conservative groups rule the House, and they turned against a bill that gives tax breaks to everyone making up to $1 million, along with enough reductions in other taxes to soften the blow for those poor millionaires. But House Republicans just aren’t going to do it, on this or any tax increase.

This completely changes the dynamic of the talks, in my view. The President is simply not going to be able to win a grand bargain. The House couldn’t even do this simple millionaire’s bracket. There’s no way the President can continue to negotiate with someone who cannot bring the votes of his caucus forward. There is simply no negotiating partner on the other side, which has given way to crazy. It’s an impasse.

David Kurtz wonders if this is the end of Boehner’s Speakership:

It is easy to overreact to these things in the moment, to overread them. But Speaker Boehner just put it all on the line. The entire nation was watching, and he was exposed. He knows it. His conference knows it. Anyone left in Washington who had doubts about this speaker’s clout now knows it, too. In a parliamentary system, he would resign and his party would elect a new leader. We don’t do it that way here … usually. But it’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here — or why he would want to.

This raises a question that has been at the back of my mind for awhile now: just why is Boehner just a weak Speaker? To think of him and Sam Rayburn holding the same post is jarring. We are in a new era of very partisan and ideologically homogeneous parties, but that didn’t stop Nancy Pelosi from being an extraordinarily effective leader just in a purely mechanical sense. Whatever else you think about her, she clearly knows how to get bills through her caucus. Dennis Hastert was weaker, but he and Tom Delay didn’t faceplant like this all the time.

My gut instinct is that it’s the obvious answer: Republican extremism. If keeping taxes low on millionaires takes a backseat to every other political calculation to such an extent that the caucus won’t even give their ostensible leader a meaningless fig leaf with no chance of becoming law, then a Speaker will be powerless. There’s also the grand vizier problem—Eric Cantor is famously just waiting for the chance to knife Boehner and claim the Speakership for himself.

But I haven’t seen much reporting on this. All the profiles I’ve seen of Boehner are from 2010 (a New Yorker piece speculating on this question exactly, a straightforward WaPo bit, and a hilarious but not very informative Matt Taibbi piece), and nothing really digging into why this keeps happening. Perhaps Boehner just hasn’t shored up his power base enough; perhaps that’s why a few weeks ago he sacked a bunch of committee chairmen for, essentially, insubordination.

It’s an important topic, because if it’s the caucus and not Boehner, then that means it doesn’t matter who is Speaker, no one will be able to wrangle the votes for a compromise. Anyone seen some good work on this question?


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Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.