WASHINGTON — A week that started with hopes for a deal ended Friday on a starkly negative note, as Republicans and Democrats traded barbs and laid the groundwork to blame their opponents in the increasingly likely event Washington takes the nation off the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1.
House Speaker John Boehner essentially threw up his hands Friday after his strategy of unilaterally introducing a House bill imploded Thursday night in a humiliating collapse. After failing to bring his bill to the floor because of a lack of support, he said it was now up to President Obama or the Senate to find a solution.
“How we get there, God only knows,’’ Boehner declared.
“We only run the House. Democrats continue to run Washington,” Boehner added, pointing the finger at the White House and the Senate after he sent House members home for Christmas.
Boehner stepped away from rapidly developing negotiations earlier in the week to offer his bill that would extend tax cuts for all Americans except those earning more than $1 million a year. After that gambit failed Thursday night, Democrats implored him to come back to the table and resume negotiations for a compromise. That did not happen.
As eyes turned toward the Senate for signs of movement, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell also appeared to dig in against compromising on tax-rate hikes for the wealthy. He sought to deflect attention back toward the White House, saying Republicans were still waiting for a package of spending cuts that they could accept from Obama.
“This isn’t John Boehner’s problem to solve,’’ McConnell said in a Senate floor speech. “This is a moment that calls for presidential leadership.’’
Meanwhile, lawmakers were leaving town for a holiday break. If they return as scheduled after Christmas, less than a week will remain before $500 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts kicks in, which economists say could trigger another recession in 2013.
Obama said he asked Boehner in a telephone call late Friday afternoon to consider passing tax cuts for the middle class — while allowing taxes to rise for the wealthy — along with an extension of unemployment benefits for long-term jobless people. That proposal includes setting a framework for deeper tax and entitlement overhauls next year. Obama has said he wants to cut taxes for people making less than $400,000.
Republicans have already repeatedly rejected such proposals. Nonetheless, Obama declared that he is hopeful a holiday hiatus will produce results and lawmakers on both sides will — upon reflection — realize that the public wants a compromise.
“Everyone can cool off. Everyone can drink some eggnog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones,’’ he said. “Call me a hopeless optimist, but I actually think we can still get it done.’’ After his remarks, Obama and his family left for Hawaii for Christmas.
With the stalemate continuing, however, and House Republicans now demonstrably unable to compromise on any tax hikes, a successful vote to block the tax increases may not be possible until after Jan. 1. At that point, the tax increases will have taken effect, and lawmakers would be under more intense pressure to reduce taxes for most Americans.
That scenario is presumed to be more palatable for Republicans because it would no longer be viewed as containing tacit approval for tax increases for the rich. It may seem like a subtle distinction for voters back home worried about a Washington-induced recession. But for rank-and-file Republicans facing a potential Tea Party primary challenge in 2014, it could make a big difference.
That dynamic was evident in Boehner’s failure Thursday night to muster enough support for tax cuts for everyone except millionaires. His bill would have benefited 99.81 percent of American taxpayers.
“It was not the outcome that I wanted, but that was the will of the House,” the speaker said. “They were dealing with the perception that somebody might accuse them of raising taxes. That was the real issue.”
In response to a question, Boehner said he was not worried about losing his speakership. “While we may have not been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases, I don’t think they are going to take that out on me,” Boehner said.
Boehner was joined at the news conference by the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who commands wide loyalty among fiscal conservatives.
“We stand ready to continue in dialogue with this president to actually fix the problem,” Cantor said.
Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, during an appearance Friday morning on CNBC-TV, said he and other Democrats were prepared to “work on getting a sufficient number of Democrats to join with a sufficient number of Republicans to pass a balanced, bipartisan agreement that the president will sign, and the Senate will pass.”
“Just walking away and saying, ‘now it’s up to the president, and up to the Senate,’ is not a helpful stance,” Hoyer said.