In 10 days, virtually all Americans will be hit with a tax increase and deep government spending cuts will follow shortly behind. That is, unless Congress and President Obama can find a way to avert the "fiscal cliff."
It's not looking very promising at the moment. On Thursday night, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pulled the plug on a measure he was calling his "Plan B" and sent his members home for Christmas.
When it was clear Boehner's bill wasn't going to get enough votes to pass, he called his members into an emergency meeting in the basement of the Capitol and told them he was giving up on "Plan B."
Florida Republican Allen West's assessment was matter of fact as he walked out of the somber meeting: "He said, 'Merry Christmas,' OK? So, the lump of coal is in the president's box."
West was one of more than two dozen House Republicans, notably Tea Party freshmen, who refused to get behind the speaker and support his bill.
The measure would have extended the Bush-era tax cuts on all income up to $1 million. But people earning more than that would have been hit with a tax increase — even if the measure didn't technically raise their taxes.
Boehner tried mightily to change minds. "It's not the outcome that I wanted, but that was the will of the House," he said.
In the light of day, at a press conference Friday morning, Boehner did his best to spin this as something other than a defeat of his leadership.
"They weren't taking that out on me," he said. "They were dealing with a perception that somebody might accuse them of raising taxes."
He was joined at the press conference by his chief deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — someone who at times has been rumored to have eyes on the speakership. His presence on the stage was a signal that Boehner still has his support.
Boehner said it is now up to the president and Democrats in the Senate to find a way to avoid the fiscal cliff — but then, moments later, he said the only real way out is a bipartisan agreement.
"How we get there, God only knows," he said. "All I'm telling you is that Eric and I and our team here are committed to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol and the White House to address it."
On the other side of the Capitol, a consensus seemed to be building around the same idea. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Boehner to keep working with the president.
"Now I like John Boehner, but gee whiz. I mean, this is a pretty big political battering he's taken," Reid said.
That battering, he said, made it very clear Boehner can't pass a fix with Republicans alone.
"No comprehensive agreement can pass either chamber without both Democrats' and Republican votes," Reid said.
The problem is settling on an agreement that truly is bipartisan — that enough Democrats and enough Republicans are willing to support. The path is far from obvious, and the House GOP blowup didn't help.
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