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Heading for the cliff

Published:Monday | December 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By John Rapley

United States Republicans at least get to go home early for Christmas. But before closing down Congress and leaving Washington, they stuck a lump of coal in everyone's stocking. They probably won't find a lot of warm smiles and glasses of eggnog waiting for them when they get home.

Last week, after coming within a hair of reaching an accord with President Obama to avoid going over the fiscal cliff, House Speaker John Boehner suddenly changed gears. Declaring that the president wasn't giving enough ground on spending cuts, the effective leader of the Republican Party announced his own "Plan B". He prepared legislation for the House. Apparently, his intention was to get a strong mandate from the Republican-controlled House, then use that as a bargaining-chip with the president.

But then it all went awry. Because Plan B included an increase in taxes on millionaires, die-hard conservatives in the Republican caucus, who refused to go along with any tax cuts whatsoever, skewered the plan.

Last Thursday, a chastened Boehner announced he couldn't muster enough votes for his proposed plan. He sent the House home for the holidays, and said the ball was now in the Senate's court. Let it pass a bill, he said, and he'd put it to the House and see what happens. It was John Boehner's 'No Mas' moment.

No glory for republicans

Since the Senate is controlled by the Democrats, Boehner in effect conceded defeat to his opponents. The Republican Party, whacked in last month's elections, are in disarray. President Obama is handily beating them in this game of chicken. If the country goes over the cliff, it will blame the Republicans. If Obama and Senate Democrats find a solution, they'll get all the credit.

Meanwhile, the Republican brand, already tarnished, will get little shine from an insistence to protect millionaires at the expense of social security and medicare (which is how it will play in Peoria). At a time when Republican strategists want desperately to make the party relevant to Middle America, it makes it look ever more like a rich man's club.

But if President Obama is giving his Republican foes a boxing lesson, it's, nevertheless, probably a victory he'll little want to toast. The lesson the world is taking from this ongoing gridlock and indecision is that America has a crisis of leadership. When the country's leading legislator more or less throws up his hands in frustration, it raises questions as to whether the country is equipped to navigate its way through rough waters.

A deal is coming

In the end, the fiscal cliff itself might not prove to be as dire as some alarmism suggests. Even if the country does wake up on January 1 to higher taxes and deep government cuts, a deal is likely to be reached fairly soon. Democrats will propose a plan to their own liking, and present it to the House. A few dozen Republicans are all that will be needed to give House Democrats the numbers they need to pass the bill.

At that point, Republican opponents will likely vote 'present' as a way to save face. They will then be able to tell their base they never actually voted to increase taxes; they merely stood by while Democrats and a few Republican traitors did it.

The alternative - actually voting against the eventual plan - would deepen gridlock at a time when the country risks heading back towards recession. It would be a form of political suicide few would want to take. So we can probably assume that the failure of Plan B paves the way to a resolution of the fiscal crisis.

When put alongside Europe's continued bickering over its own problems, recent events in US politics only underscore the sense that at a time when the world economy needs urgent action, there are few responsible adults around. It's not surprising the stock markets plummeted the day after Mr Boehner's announcement.

John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to and