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John Boehner and the Chuckleheads

Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) found himself presiding over the House of Representatives Thursday night as the GOP narrowly passed a bill to cut spending. That's part of the Republican solution to avert the fiscal cliff. At the end of the vote sequence, the House would launch debate on what House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) characterized as Plan B, an effort to renew tax breaks for Americans earning less than $1,000,000 a year.

And without warning, the Republican leadership instructed Bass to rap the gavel and pitch the House into an unexpected recess.

"I had no idea," Bass said moments later when asked if he was aware the impromptu recess was coming. "And they told me to make it snappy, too."

Improvised recesses are never a good sign in Congress. They're almost always a signal the majority party doesn't have the votes to pass the critical bill at hand.

One half of the fiscal cliff is the sequester, a set of massive, arbitrary spending cuts scheduled to hit in January. Republicans have consistently argued that "spending is the problem." So the House forged a bill to replace the sequester with targeted spending cuts. But the GOP-led House struggled to approve even that measure. The outcome of the vote was telling: 215 yeas to 209 nays with one member voting present. In other words, switch three votes and it's a tie. Ties lose in the House. Republicans only have a 25 seat advantage in the current House arrangement. Twenty-one Republicans cast no ballots on this bill. During the vote, reporters peered over the railing of the gallery above the House chamber, straining to see if House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) or Boehner was buttonholing any members. But McCarthy was spotted in the well laughing, even chatting briefly with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

Weren't they sweating it to make sure they had the votes locked down?

No. GOP sources later said leaders knew they didn't have the votes for the tax reduction package. And even though Charlie Bass wasn't in on the House's plan to gavel out of session, the Republican brass had made the decision to call off the final debate long before.

Boehner summoned all House Republicans to a conclave in the basement of the Capitol where he led the rank-and-file in the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Earlier in the day , House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) declared "we are going to have the votes to pass both bills" and added "we do not intend to send members home after this vote. We intend to stay here." But by nightfall, Boehner sent everyone packing for Christmas.

Such a spectacular flame-out triggered immediate speculation about Boehner's future. In other words, if Boehner can barely pass a bill that cuts spending and can't conjure up votes for his own Plan B, is his leadership in trouble?

Boehner opponents immediately piled on. Ron Meyer of the interest group American Majority Action declared that Thursday's meltdown "is a harbinger of things to come. Speaker Boehner is on the ropes and his speakership is in jeopardy."

Freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), elected in the tea party wave of 2010, has been openly critical of Boehner since the House leader bounced him from the Agriculture and Budget Committees. Now Huelskamp claimed victory.

"They sent many new Congressman to this town to change it," said Huelskamp. "It's a victory for conservative principles because I think leadership has strayed from those principles."

Other conservatives are mad, too. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is another freshman backed by the tea party and lifted from the Budget Committee. He warned last week that if Boehner visited his district "he's not going to be met with very much welcome."

Like Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), is schooled in internal party contretemps. But even the Senate's top Democrat felt sorry for his Ohio colleague.

"I like John Boehner. But gee whiz, this is a political battering he has taken," said Reid. "He's trying to pass everything with the majority that doesn't agree with it among themselves."

That's precisely the problem Boehner faced for two years. Boehner's been able to pass major bills despite significant defections from his side of the aisle. Fifty-nine Republicans abandoned Boehner in April, 2011 on a package to avert a government shutdown. That number ballooned to 101 on a November, 2011 bill to fund the government. Sixty-six Republicans cast nay ballots in August, 2011 to hike the debt ceiling. There were 91 GOP noes on a February bill to extend the payroll tax cut. Fifty-two Republicans voted against a bill to pay for the nation's transportation programs in June.

However, Boehner's had marked help from Democrats on each of those measures. But none offered backup on Thursday. When you go it alone in the House, you need your members in lock-step. And that's been a challenge for Republicans.

"It's the same 40 to 50 chuckleheads that have screwed this place up all year," complained retiring Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH), a Boehner ally. "(Boehner's) done everything to make nice to them. Bring them along. It hasn't mattered. I don't fault him. He's done his best."

You've heard of Derek and the Dominos. Billy Vera and the Beeters. Bill Haley and the Comets.

Try John Boehner and the Chuckleheads.

This act has been on tour throughout the past two years as the GOP re-captured the majority. But we'll see if they break up the band when the House meets in early January to launch the 113th Congress. The second item of business after constituting the new House is selecting a Speaker. It's those very "chuckleheads" who LaTourette speaks of who could create a problem.

It works like this:

The entire House votes for Speaker. In November, the House GOP Conference unanimously tapped Boehner to be the Republican nominee against the Democratic candidate, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) briefly suggested the Republicans run former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). The rules are silent on whether the Speaker must be a member of the House, although lawmakers have never selected an outsider.

Usually the Speaker is picked on a party-line vote. But sometimes there are defections. As a protest of her leadership style, 19 Democrats either voted for someone else or voted present when Pelosi ran in January, 2011. Still, since Democrats were in the minority, there was virtually no chance Pelosi would re-take the gavel.

Here's the troublesome scenario for Boehner:

The House Clerk states that when picking a Speaker, "a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast - which may be less than a majority of the full House because of vacancies, absentee Members or Members who vote ‘present.' If no candidate receives the majority of votes, the roll call is repeated until a majority is reached and the Speaker is elected."

In the new Congress, Republicans will have 233 seats and the Democrats 200. Two seats will be vacant as Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) moves to the Senate and former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) quit. With the current majority, Boehner can lose 25 Republicans. But in the new majority, that figure slips to a scant 17.

An "absolute majority" means Boehner can't have 17 Republicans vote for someone else. They don't count the members who vote "present." But they do count them if they vote for someone else. Say there are 17 Republican defections. Boehner still collects 216 votes and Pelosi presumably garners 200. But Boehner isn't Speaker if those 17 Republicans vote for someone else. In other words, Boehner has a plurality but failed to reach an absolute majority (50.1 percent) of all lawmakers who cast a vote for a name.

The House is then compelled to continue to vote until it taps a Speaker.

In fact, there hasn't been a second ballot for Speaker since 1923. That House voted nine times between December 3 and December 5 in a four-way contest between Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-MA), House Minority Leader Finis Garrett (D-TN) and Reps. Henry Cooper (R-WI) & Martin Madden (R-IL). Cooper had nowhere near the votes that Gillett had in his camp. But he commanded enough support to the dilute the GOP vote and keep Gillett from gaining an absolute majority. Cooper finally dropped out after the eighth ballot.

In 1849, the House burned an entire month trying to select a Speaker before settling on Howell Cobb (D-GA). But that was nothing compared to 1856. In that instance, the House devoted two months to electing Nathaniel Banks (D-MA) on the 133rd ballot.

Here's the question: Do 21 Republican nay votes on the Thursday's spending cut bill coupled with what insiders say is 40 to 50 noes on the tax cut measure that was pulled - translate to at least 17 votes for other candidates for Speaker in January?

That's unclear - mainly because there's no one else running for Speaker. Sources say it's entirely possible that members like Cantor, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Reps. Tom Price (R-GA) & Jim Jordan (R-OH) could collect votes in an organic, non-organized process on the floor. But just because someone was a nay on Thursday doesn't mean they'll vote for someone other than Boehner.

A good example of that is Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) who opposed the tax cut bill.

"He is my Speaker. I support him strongly. He's in a very difficult position," said Fleming of Boehner. "I just disagree that this (bill) sends the right message."

To diminish chatter that there was any immediate dissension Cantor unexpectedly joined Boehner at a Friday morning press conference. From an optics perspective, just having Cantor standing foursquare behind Boehner sent a strong message that there was no coup afoot. That enabled Boehner to deflect questions that he may be worried about his Speakership.

"No, absolutely not," Boehner replied when asked if his grasp on the gavel was in jeopardy. He suggested that Republicans "were not taking that out on me" when they failed to support Plan B.

On Friday night, President Obama asked everyone to "cool off" over the holiday, "drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols" and then cut a smaller deal before January 1. Specifically, Mr. Obama wants Congress to agree to renew tax breaks for those earning less than $200,000 a year.

Mr. Obama didn't mention it by name, but the model for compromise was this past summer's transportation bill. It was a long saga to move the transportation package through the House. But it finally passed with overwhelming support, 373-52. The trick though was getting near-equal buy-in from both parties. One-hundred-eight-six Republicans joined 187 Democrats to vote yes. All 52 nays were from Republicans, reflective of the GOP dissenters throughout this Congress. However, such a compromise is rife with risk for Boehner. The Ohio Republican could agree to a similar package but could witness a comparable number of no votes on his side of the aisle. Democrats are loathe to carry most of the weight on this since Republicans hold the majority in the House. Moreover, 52 GOP noes could really inflame the vote for House Speaker in a few weeks.

On Friday morning, an email arrived in the inboxes of many reporters promoting a series of seminars in the Washington, DC area on "dealing with difficult people."

The email bragged that participants would "learn to take the offensive against know-it-alls, dictators, snipers, gripers, ‘yes' people, ‘no' people all of the other contrary characters you confront every day."

It's unclear if Boehner also received the email in his box, too.