WASHINGTON — Less than 12 hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden marshaled a strong 89 votes for their fiscal cliff plan, House Speaker John Boehner was scrambling to beat back a conservative revolt that appeared for a moment on the verge of unraveling the deal.
Boehner set a vote of his Republican conference during the 9:00 p.m. hour, a Republican source said Tuesday evening — a sign that the House leader believes he can keep his end of a bargain with Senate Republicans.
But Republicans said Boehner had abandoned a longstanding tradition — known as the Hastert rule — of allowing bills to the floor only if they have a majority of Republicans, 120 members in this Congress. The move is important because the Speaker has long insisted on that threshold — indeed, that has been the sticking point through weeks of painful talks — only to abandon it when all else failed.
Ideological rifts over the deal were on display during a closed-door meeting of the GOP conference Tuesday afternoon, Majority Leader Eric Cantor — a power center and sometime Boehner rival — told his colleagues that he would not support the deal — despite the fact that he and Boehner the night before had vowed to “consider” the bill.
But Boehner appeared Tuesday evening to have brought his conference back to heel, as an amendment to cut additional spending showed no signs of winning the support among Republicans necessary for passage and Boehner moved toward a vote on the original deal. His decision to rely on Democrats does not necessarily reflect a deepening rift inside his conference, but it does suggest that the speaker's hold on his members — which has repeatedly proven tenuous — may be weakening.
Although his remarks were brief, they sent shock waves through his conference, which was already extremely skeptical of the agreement, and perhaps looking for a leader.
Conservative opposition to the agreement stems from a host of issues, including the fact that the deal does not include any spending cuts, would significantly add to the nation’s deficit and raises taxes on those making more than $400,000 a year.
And Cantor’s not alone in opposing the deal: the agreement is universally disliked within Republican circles, and even Democrats in the House and Senate have voiced complaints about the deal.
The lack of spending cuts in the Senate bill was a universal concern amongst members in today’s meeting," said Boehner spokesperson Brendan Buck.
Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Boehner ally, said there were “two schools of thought” expressed in the meeting: To accept the deal and “live to fight another day,” or amend the measure and send it back to the Senate.
The latter option clearly enjoyed support from the majority of the conference.
“I think it’s moving in that direction," LaTourette said.
Still, Cantor’s decision to come out against the agreement was unexpected.
According to one Republican in the room Cantor “went rogue on the messaging” and clearly caught his colleagues in leadership by surprise with his decision to come out against the bill.
Shortly after House Republicans concluded their meeting, the conference prepared to blamed Senate Democrats for the death of a deal.
"The House will work its will, and if it sends the Senate an amended bill and Democratic leaders choose to go over the cliff, then they will have to answer to the American people," a House Republican leadership aide said.
Republican Rep. Todd Akin was comparably dismissive.
"Oh, the Senate always rattles its saber," he said.
Even Republican support in the Senate did not appear at first to have any bearing on House GOP opinion: LaTourette joked that the Republican senators "must have been drunk" when they voted for the compromise.
But as the evening wore on Boehner moved toward a bipartisan vote, and Republicans Tuesday night headed back toward the Capitol for a tense vote.