WASHINGTON: The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, has thrown efforts to avoid the year-end ''fiscal cliff'' into chaos by abruptly closing the House for the holidays, after failing to win support from his fellow Republicans for a plan to increase tax rates rise for millionaires.
The proposal - Mr Boehner's alternative to negotiating a broader package with the President, Barack Obama - would have protected most people from significant tax increases due to take effect next year. But because it also would have permitted tax rates to rise for about 400,000 families, conservatives baulked, leaving Mr Boehner humiliated and his negotiating power immeasurably weakened.
No one can say what will happen next. Just 11 days remain until the new year, when more than $US500 billion ($478 billion) in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will begin to take effect, threatening to undermine the sluggish recovery and prompt a new recession.
As a grim-faced Mr Boehner hurried from the Capitol on Thursday evening, his office issued a statement abdicating responsibility for solving the crisis to Mr Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate.
''The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass. Now it is up to the President to work with Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff,'' the statement said, referring to the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid.
The House is now out of session until after Christmas. The Senate will meet for only a few hours on Friday before members leave Washington until next Thursday.
The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said Mr Obama would act. ''The President's main priority is to ensure that taxes don't go up on 98 per cent of Americans and 97 per cent of small businesses in just a few short days,'' he said. ''[He] 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.''
Senior Democrats urged Mr Boehner to stop wooing hardliners and resume talks with the White House over a compromise that could win the support of Democrats and Republicans. ''Speaker Boehner's partisan approach wasted an entire week and pushed middle-class families closer to the edge,'' Senator Reid's spokesman, Adam Jentleson, said. ''The only way to avoid the cliff altogether is for [him] to return to negotiations and work with President Obama and the Senate to forge a bipartisan deal.''
Even if the resumption of talks were to yield a breakthrough, Mr Boehner's ability to deliver Republican votes for any proposal that raises taxes is now in doubt after he was unable to rally House Republicans behind what he had dubbed ''Plan B''. It was to serve as his back-up plan to avert a fiscal crisis next month and to shift blame to Democrats - or at least to strengthen his hand as he negotiates a deficit-reduction deal with Mr Obama.
Emboldened liberals argued Democrats should demand additional concessions from Republicans, either upping the demand for fresh tax revenue or withdrawing Mr Obama's offer to seek savings through cuts in federal health and retirement programs.
The vote on Plan B was the most consequential test of Mr Boehner's leadership since he took control early last year.
It telegraphed a grave decision facing the Speaker. A deal with the President would lose a swath of his Republican conference, but it could pass with Democratic support. Does he make an agreement and risk a Republican revolt, or do leaders allow the nation to careen off the ''fiscal cliff''?
The Washington Post, The New York Times