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Last night, we got a feel for the political pressure faced by the speaker of the House, John Boehner.

INSKEEP: Boehner has yet to reach a deal with President Obama to avoid higher taxes and spending cuts at the end of this year, so he offered what he called Plan B. This plan offered tax cuts to everyone but millionaires. The White House didn't like it.

GREENE: Neither, as it turns out, did many members of Boehner's own party. Boehner had to admit the vote on his plan would fail, so he pulled it and sent the House home for Christmas.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This wasn't how Speaker John Boehner expected his night to turn out. Earlier in the day, he expressed confidence not only that his bill would pass, but that the Democratic-controlled Senate would feel so much pressure, it would be forced to consider it, too.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I am not convinced at all that when the bill passes the House today, that it will die in the Senate.

KEITH: It turns out he was wrong, very wrong. And the problem was his fellow Republicans. Boehner's bill would have extended tax cuts for income up to a million dollars. But it also would have raised taxes on those who make more than that. This made some conservatives uncomfortable, people like Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina.

REPRESENTATIVE MICK MULVANEY: I want to protect everybody. I think everybody pays too much in taxes, so I'm looking for some way to protect everybody.

KEITH: And so, at around the time the bill should have been up for a vote, Boehner gathered his conference in the basement of the Capitol and told them he wouldn't bring it up. His whip team had counted the votes, and they didn't have enough.

Steve LaTourette is a retiring representative from Ohio.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE LATOURETTE: Well, he couldn't get the votes. I mean, you know, for this proposal. At the end of the day, you can't make people vote.

KEITH: Many of the unconvinced were freshmen elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Tim Huelskamp from Kansas, the most vocal of the bunch, said the speaker was asking his members to take a vote that violated conservative principles. The conservatives rebelled.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM HUELSKAMP: It's not Republican material, and I think that's probably why they wisely pulled the plug and says, OK. Let's regroup, but regroup and reassess, you know, what exactly do Republicans stand for, and actually pushing out things we can pull together on rather than divide ourselves on.

KEITH: As LaTourette sees it, the speaker is stuck.

LATOURETTE: He can only play with the cards that he's dealt, and the voters have populated our conference with a set of representatives, and he does his best to work with them, but sometimes your best isn't good enough in the face of some people that just don't want to find common ground.

JACK PITNEY: To quote the great philosopher John Belushi in "Animal House": "My advice to the speaker is start drinking heavily."

KEITH: Jack Pitney is a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, and he can't figure out why the speaker would make such a public push if he didn't have the votes lined up to begin with.

PITNEY: If he brings a proposal to the president, then the president is going to say look, John. How do I know you're going to get the support of the members of your conference? That's an extremely weak hand to be presenting when you're dealing with the president. So where this ends up, I don't know.

KEITH: To those on the inside, the endgame isn't any clearer. California's Buck McKeon, an ally of Boehner's, walked out of the conference meeting discouraged.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: I don't know how we can get out of this mess.

KEITH: He says the speaker may not get any credit for it, but he believes Boehner wants to do what is right.

MCKEON: And he thinks that with divided government, we should be able to do big things, and we can't do anything. And it's - this is really, really sad.

KEITH: The White House issued a statement last night saying the president will work with Congress, and hopes to find a bipartisan solution quickly. There's not much time left. Congress doesn't plan to return to Washington until two days after Christmas.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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