John Boehner’s Unhappy Holidays

The so-far insurmountable problem for House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama as they try to reach a budget deal is that nothing matters more to Republicans than fighting taxes.

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Brendan Hoffman / The New York Times / Redux

House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Dec. 20, 2012.

John Boehner is hard to decipher. His public persona is generally affectless, unperturbed. Things are fine, business is getting done, the prognosis good. Until he starts bawling.

Boehner has misted up in public so many times that it wouldn’t have been shocking to see him shed tears at the press conference he held Friday morning to explain why he was unable to orchestrate a successful House vote on his “Plan B” to avoid the fiscal cliff. Instead he was composed behind a mask of calm and control. The only sign of tension was his tight squint, as though he were recoiling from the pack of reporters wanting to know why he’d lost control of his House Republican conference, whether he can survive as House Speaker, and how a solution to the “fiscal cliff” can be achieved. “How we get there, God only knows,” Boehner conceded.

The first question–why Boehner lost control in what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called a “travesty”–is blurry. On Thursday, Boehner said he had the votes for a measure that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on Jan. 1 only for people making more than a million dollars a year. (A companion measure shifting planned Pentagon cuts onto other domestic programs did pass, barely.)  On Friday, Boehner lamented that a “perception” was “created” by unnamed (but obvious) actors “that the vote was going to increase taxes.” His rebellious members, who informed him shortly before the vote that they were not going to support his plan “were dealing with the perception that someone might accuse them of raising taxes.”

And that goes right to the heart of things. The so-far insurmountable problem for Boehner and for President Barack Obama as they try to reach a budget deal that avoids the fiscal cliff is that nothing matters more to Republicans than fighting taxes. Think back to the GOP primary debate last winter when not a single candidate onstage, not even Jon Huntsman, would raise a hand in support of an hypothetical budget plan featuring a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes. The same thinking prevails within Boehner’s conference. Not raising taxes is the modern Republican’s Hippocratic oath.

At his press conference Friday, Boehner wasn’t able to offer a path forward. Rather than dwell on his own party’s problems, he pointed his finger at Democrats. President Obama, Boehner charged, “won’t deal honestly” with spending and entitlements. Later in the day, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also put the onus on the White House, calling this “a moment that calls for presidential leadership.” But Obama feels like he has made Boehner an honest offer, and the just re-elected president isn’t in a mood to compromise much further.

That doesn’t mean a budget disaster is inevitable. Paradoxically, a brief dive over the cliff–something leaders from both parties have long said privately they are resigned to–could be the easiest way to solve the problem. That’s because, once the Bush tax cuts expire, Republicans can vote to cut them from their new, higher level–thereby adhering to their sacred tax-cutting oath. President Obama supports eliminating higher taxes on the middle class, and might even accept slightly less-high rates on the wealthiest Americans if Republicans limit their demands for spending cuts. In theory this can all be done relatively quickly, before the fiscal cliff’s tax hikes and spending cuts have time to do real damage to the economy. (Signs of an improving economy, including today’s upward revision in third-quarter GDP growth to 3.1 %, make things easier; the faster the economy is growing, the less budgetary pain required to reduce the debt.)

Still, Boehner’s path forward remains unclear. Even if there’s a plausible resolution in January, Boehner doesn’t want House Republicans to be blamed if January comes and there’s no deal, possibly slamming the stock market and spooking ordinary Americans. After Thursday night, it certainly looks as though the GOP is playing something less than a constructive role.

Speaking Friday, President Obama said he still believed a deal could be reached.“So call me a hopeless optimist, but I actually still think we can get it done,” he told the press before departing for Hawaii with his family. Both  he and Boehner say they’ll be back in Washington after the holiday to try again.

But what happens then? “There is no plan,” Republican Congressman Jeff Flake told TIME’s Alex Rogers at the Capitol last night. “[Boehner’s] doing the best he can.” So far, it hasn’t been good enough. It’s almost enough to make a grown man weep.