WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to muscle a controversial fiscal cliff fallback through the House Thursday night, suddenly pulling the bill after spending almost a week on a plan that Democrats called a waste of time.
The failure to bring the measure to a vote kills Boehner's "Plan B" and moves the nation one large step closer to the so-called fiscal cliff looming on Jan. 1, when a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts are set to start kicking in. It also marks a major setback for Boehner, who was unable to marshal enough of his fractious, Tea Party-inspired members, even after he and other leaders had pledged earlier in the day that they would succeed.
"The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," Boehner said in a statement. "Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. 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."
"Merry Christmas," said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) "There is a lump of coal in the president's box."
"Our leadership team did the very best they could and it was just too big a hill to climb," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who was among those who said he would have opposed the speaker's bill.
Boehner adjourned the House until after Christmas, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared earlier Thursday that the Senate will recess Friday until two days after the holiday.
Republicans leaving the caucus meeting said they were told they would get back to work after Christmas, but they didn't know whether that meant next week or next year.
"We’re ready to go anytime," Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. "But just talking to ourselves up here, meeting as we did, with the president saying whatever you send us -- I mean Harry Reid’s already said if you pass the bill tonight he’s not going to take it up, and the president would veto it anyway. What’s the point, folks?"
Fleming described the mood in the caucus room as fatigue and frustration. Most members walked tight-lipped through a hallway in the Capitol basement, ignoring reporters as they left the meeting.
The sudden collapse -- reminiscent of two previous Boehner failures on high-stakes legislation over the debt ceiling and the payroll tax cuts last year -- means that when both chambers of Congress come back to work, there will be less than five full days to find a way around the cliff, which Congress itself created by mandating in last year's debt-ceiling agreement some $1 trillion in budget cuts. Congress also has mandated that all of the Bush-era tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 expire in the new year.
“It is now clear that to protect the middle class from the fiscal cliff, Speaker Boehner must allow a bill to pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes," Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, said in an email to HuffPost. "Speaker Boehner’s partisan approach wasted an entire week and pushed middle-class families closer to the edge. The only way to avoid the cliff altogether is for Speaker Boehner to return to negotiations, and work with President Obama and the Senate to forge a bipartisan deal.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that Obama's priority remains "to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days.
"The president will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy," Carney said.
Boehner's bill aimed to keep all the tax cuts for those earning less than $1 million a year -- a scheme similar to what Democrats had backed two years ago, when they were unable to get the GOP to budge on taxes.
Democrats opposed Boehner's plan because it did not include many provisions that were included in their version. They argued that the Plan B bill would end some tax cuts for the middle class -- worth on average about $1,000 a year -- while it actually preserved some tax breaks for millionaires worth approximately $50,000. On top that, Democrats campaigned -- and won -- on keeping taxes lower for those with incomes of less than $250,000.
The House did pass one part of Boehner's fallback -- a bill to cut spending by $200 billion, mostly by slashing domestic programs, including favorite GOP targets such as health care and food stamps. That measure now appears doomed.
Democratic leaders said the whole effort was a futile display that drew the nation closer to the fiscal cliff. They argued that Boehner should work more closely with Obama on a real solution.
"The reason we're here is because our Republican colleagues refuse to compromise," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We are wasting the people's time."
Boehner stood by his strategy as recently as Thursday afternoon, insisting that the Senate would have to give his bill a vote.
If Boehner's bill had passed, it would have marked a shift in the GOP's absolute opposition of all tax hikes, and offered a ray of hope that the two sides could come together. With time running out, however, it would be difficult for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a plan that Boehner could get his stalwart Tea Party members to sign.
Still, the attempt was strongly opposed by Democrats, and Republicans can tell their anti-tax base that holding the purist line on taxes is impossible because of the utter rejection of Plan B by the other party.
"We're showing that we don't have a partner in the White House and we don't have a partner in this body," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Republicans have admitted that the whole equation changes after Jan. 1, when tax rates default back to the Clinton era. The debate then would no longer be about raising taxes, but about lowering them, and the GOP would have few options to stop Democrats from passing their middle class tax break. Then, cutting a deal on taxes -- if not spending -- becomes relatively easy, and likely would be accomplished quickly.
"If we go over the fiscal cliff, the president just comes back and says, 'Ok, we're going to give tax cuts to everybody under 250,000.' Who's going to vote against that? Everybody'll vote for that. Everybody," Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said shortly before the votes. "It will be just a fait accompli. You won't be voting on whether you're going to do away with a tax cut, you're going to be reimposing tax cuts for everybody under 250,000. So the Republicans are in an untenable situation."
Ryan Grim contributed.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include comments from members of Congress, from the White House press secretary and from a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid.