House Speaker John Boehner was forced Thursday night, due to a shortage of votes from his own Republican caucus, to withdraw a bill he had put forward as "Plan B," his party's response to the automatic tax hikes and budget cuts that will hit on Jan. 1. His action is probably more alarming than the imminent approach of the so-called fiscal cliff.
As a tactic in his bargaining with President Barack Obama, Mr. Boehner offered a bill Wednesday, which should have been passed given the Republicans' majority in the House, that would have barred raising the income tax on all households except those earning over $1 million a year. Mr. Obama said he was willing to limit the rising taxes to households with income of at least $400,000 a year.
The gap between the two proposals was not large, particularly in the number of taxpayers affected, and it suggested to concerned Americans -- and international markets watching the U.S. political dance closely -- that a deficit reduction agreement was not far off.
Instead, a significant number of Mr. Boehner's fellow Republicans said they would not agree to any tax increases at all, in effect protecting their millionaire backers, and would not vote for the tactical bill. Mr. Boehner had no alternative but to withdraw his legislation and send the House members home for Christmas. They will return Dec. 27.
The messy encounter claimed several casualties. The most important was the American people. They have a right to see this problem resolved and they don't deserve the financial uncertainty caused by this irresponsible abdication of congressional decision-making.
Also seriously damaged is the Republican Party, which now is apparently rudderless. That is no reason for satisfaction on the part of Democrats because the GOP controls the House and, unless there is substantial change in Republican leadership, there will be no one who can bargain credibly for it in efforts to reach bipartisan consensus on critical questions.
A third casualty also may be Mr. Boehner as caucus leader and therefore speaker.
One more unfortunate result of the inability of Congress to resolve the fiscal question is that it is unlikely also to deal with legislation addressing the concerns over gun violence and mental health raised by the Newtown shooting tragedy.
That's what is really on people's minds this holiday -- not the lawmakers' inane political squabbling.