Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., overcoat in hand, was the canary in the coal mine.
He jetted out of the Capitol basement room where the House Republican Conference holed up Thursday night, walked by a handful of journalists and delivered in a flash the news that House Speaker John Boehner's Plan B had suffered a mortal wound. Would there be a vote tonight? No, came the reply.
Plan B, the fiscal cliff tax proposal that would extend the Bush tax cuts on income for those who earn $1 million or less and that Boehner said earlier Thursday would pass, failed to win enough support in the Republican Conference. The vote was canceled and lawmakers were free to leave for Christmas.
The details about the failure, and their scope, flowed quickly after that as Majority Leader Eric Cantor and a phalanx of staffers walked by and confirmed that the speaker's efforts to persuade members had failed. A statement from the Speaker came quickly.
"The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," Boehner said.
Inside the meeting, which started at 7:45 p.m., Boehner led the conference in the pledge of allegiance and then the serenity prayer and said they were going to have a short conference.
"Then he said we're not going to be here until after Christmas and maybe we don't come back at all this year, and I hope you all have a merry Christmas," said Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio.
Boehner did not indicate how many votes he fell short of passing the bill, nor was there any attempt to twist people’s arms, said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas.
Another member inside the room said the speaker told them: "The fate of this country shouldn't be left up to two men negotiating in a locked room."
Boehner tossed the fiscal cliff football to the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The House has done its job, he argued in a familiar refrain.
"The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the January 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation's crippling debt. The Senate must now act," Boehner said.
LaTourette, though, saw the situation differently and added that this wasn’t just a blow to the negotiations over taxes and spending but a mark on the party itself.
“It’s the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party, and we are going to be seen, more and more, as a bunch of extremists that can’t even get the majority of our own people to support the policies we’re putting forward,” he said. “If you’re not a governing majority, you’re not going to be a majority very long.”
Members sat stunned by the speaker’s admission, unsure of what it meant for the fiscal cliff negotiations. The speaker pledged to call the president, said one attendee, but few members had high hopes House Republicans could cut a deal or pass legislation.
“Well, I don’t know that there is a next step. We’re not coming back until after Christmas and maybe never,” said LaTourette, who's retiring.
Nancy Cook, Elahe Izadi and Ben Terris contributed.