WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Had there been a vote on Republican House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" to avert the so-called U.S. fiscal cliff on Thursday night, it would not have been close. He was probably 40 to 50 votes short of the number he needed to avoid a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own party, according to rough estimates from Republican members of Congress and staff members.
It was not for lack of effort. Boehner and his two top deputies, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, along with other House Republican leaders, tried for three days to muster support for the measure, which would have cut government spending and raised taxes on millionaires to head off across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts set for January.
They failed for a variety of reasons, according to interviews. But chief among them was this: They were asking anti-tax conservatives to take a big risk for no discernable reward. Plan B, as Boehner named his alternative to President Barack Obama's proposal to raise taxes on earnings of $400,000 a year and above, would never become law because the Democratic-controlled Senate would not pass it. Nor was it likely to put pressure on Obama to reach a deal, as Boehner intended.
Indeed, based on interviews with Republican members of Congress and some of their staffers, the wonder is not that Plan B crashed and burned, but that Boehner apparently thought - and announced in advance - that it would fly.
For Republican members of Congress like John Fleming, it was kind of mystifying.
Fleming, of Louisiana, said he was getting emails from people who raise money for campaigns saying, "'If you support tax increases without significant cuts ... don't even bother to call me.' The conservatives and donor class have laid the gauntlet down. They get that their taxes may go up, but they don't think that there is any reason to make that kind of sacrifice as government spending goes up."
With Senate Democrats and Obama making clear that they would not go along with Boehner's Plan B, said Fleming: "Why would we put ourselves on record" in favor of "raising taxes for a bill that's not going to become law?"
A staff member to a Republican congressman expressed the sentiments of some members more colorfully.
"You don't come out and announce you have the votes when you do not have the votes," she said. "It's like saying 'Here's the flaming bag of poo. We're going to leave it on your doorstep and run.' That doesn't look like you're a leader."
Boehner had talked with members one-on-one in his Capitol office, on the telephone and on the floor of the House.
"He told them, 'This is important ... This will empower our position ... this will put Democrats in a difficult position,'" said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership whose job it was to argue Boehner's case.
"Some of the freshmen members said they had been contacted frequently and had long conversations," said Fleming. "As far as anyone complaining about being threatened or berated, I never heard anything like this," he said.
Fleming, a supporter of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, said that McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, contacted him to find out why he was opposing the leadership.
"He asked me why I was voting (no)," Fleming said. "I gave him my interpretation. He listened very patiently. He came back with a couple of responses. At the end he had to admit some of my points were good points, that this bill would not do some of the things that needed to be done."
But, Cole said, dozens of members convinced themselves that Boehner's bill amounted to a tax hike despite evidence to the contrary.
"Some people really really really really talked themselves into believing it was a tax increase even though Grover Norquist, of all people, said it wasn't," said Cole, referring to the anti-tax activist responsible for "the pledge" not to raise taxes that most Republicans sign.
"That is like me talking myself into believing something is a sin even though the Pope tells me it is not," Cole said.
Representative Patrick Tiberi, a 12-year veteran of the House who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said the opposition was not just from conservatives. "It was a very mixed bag of people," he said.
"Some members determined that it was politically easier to vote on this in January when people realize that their taxes have gone up, rather than now. For others, it wasn't the right policy."
"I think we're going to go over the cliff," Tiberi said, adding, "I don't see something getting done."
Boehner and Cantor publicly voiced confidence on Thursday that they could gather enough votes to pass the bill. "I never saw a football coach who went into a game saying 'We are going to lose,'" Cole said.
But behind the scenes the leadership team was uncertain.
The staffer sensed the bill was doomed before it was actually pulled from the floor Thursday night from a sudden slowdown in her email traffic. "It went dead silent."
With the start of the vote set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Boehner made the decision at about 7 p.m. after it was clear that they would fall 40 to 50 votes short of the needed 217 for passage.
If the gap had only been four or five votes, Boehner and his team would have kept pushing, pressing, making their case.
"The natural thing would have been to rally around the leader," Cole said. "But there was too much difference between where we were at - and what we needed."
Boehner decided to make the announcement at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans in a room in the basement of the Capitol.
Before he did, he led his troops in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and then the Serenity Prayer, which includes the passage:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
"It was a very emotional meeting," Cole said.
With Cantor at his side Boehner delivered a short statement.
"He said something that I thought was profound," Fleming said. "Basically, he said the collective wisdom of two people locked in a room can never be as high or as great as the collective wisdom of 535 individuals," the combined membership of the House and Senate.
Then, Fleming said, Boehner declared: "'We don't have votes,'" and "we are adjourning and would return right after Christmas or right after New Year's, depending on the circumstances."
"There were gasps. People were stunned," Cole said, adding that many members had expected instead a final pep talk before a vote on the bill.
"I think he was just resolved to the fact that it wasn't going to go anyplace. He was not angry at all. I thought he was very magnanimous about it," Fleming said.
Cole sent a message to Boehner on Friday.
"I basically said, 'It was a tough day yesterday. I just want you to know that I will be with you in the tough days ahead. You still have my full support and confidence.'"
A day after a Republican revolt killed his tax plan, Boehner was asked if he was worried about losing his job as speaker.
"No, I am not," Boehner told reporters. "If you do the right things every day for the right reasons, the right things will happen," he said.
"While we may have not been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases, I don't think - they were taking that out on me," Boehner said.
"They were dealing with the perception that somebody might accuse them of raising taxes."
Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Patrick Temple-West; Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Beech