The biggest casualties from the ongoing stalemate in the budget negotiations might be the reputations of members of Congress and President Obama.
Despite an urgent meeting between Obama and congressional leaders at the White House Friday afternoon and a weekend of discussions among Senate leaders, there has been no breakthrough. Obama is still insisting that Congress allow taxes to go up for the top-earning households, but keep taxes at lower current rates for the middle class. He also wants Congress to extend unemployment insurance for 2 million jobless workers as part of a budget package, and make relatively modest cuts in spending.
GOP leaders have said that this plan is unacceptable because it raises taxes and doesn't cut spending nearly enough. A last-ditch effort to find a compromise in the Senate hasn't broken the deadlock, and the government appears destined to go over the fiscal cliff on Tuesday.
This means that most Americans would be paying more in taxes, estimated at an annual average of $2,000 per middle-class household, and there would be hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts. All this was mandated by Congress many months ago as a way to pressure all sides into finding a less draconian compromise, but that compromise never happened and now time is running out. Economists say that the automatic provisions could trigger another recession.
Beyond these immediate consequences, there has been severe damage to the credibility of the nation's political leaders and to the federal government itself.
"It looks awful," admitted veteran Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "I'm sure the American people are saying, 'With so much at stake why are they waiting so late to get this done?'"
Good question. And the answer is, it's because of the partisanship, the brinksmanship, and the gamesmanship that have become part of the way Washington works.
This dysfunction is an embarrassment to many voters, who assign the blame widely. Twenty-seven percent of Americans say congressional Republicans are more responsible for the fiscal cliff, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll. Sixteen percent blame Obama; 6 percent blame congressional Democrats, and 31 percent blame "all of the above." It amounts to a deep dissatisfaction with the entire political Establishment.
Even members of Congress are becoming very critical of their own institution. "This is a total dereliction of duty at every level," Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told CBS. "The American people should be disgusted."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, told CNN, "We've got to demonstrate we have some capacity left to make decisions in Washington on these very significant issues for the country."
And Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, told his colleagues, "I rise today frustrated, embarrassed, and angry. It is absolutely inexcusable that all of us find ourselves in this place at this time, standing on the floor of the Senate in front of the American people hours before we plunge off the fiscal cliff. with no plan and no apparent hope."
A former senior White House strategist for a Republican president told me that leaders of the Washington Establishment used to pride themselves on making tough decisions under pressure. "But today, that's not the case," he says. "Few of them want to take risks with their core constituents."
Democrats don't want to alienate liberal voters and donors by cutting entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Republicans don't want to alienate conservative voters and donors by raising taxes or compromising with the left. The biggest fear for many legislators is of an intra-party challenge for renomination in a primary, since most House seats are considered safe for incumbents in a general election.
President Obama, the central player and the only one elected to represent all the people, told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that most Americans support his budget plan. But he has shown some willingness to make accommodations with his opponents in order to move the process along. He has suggested that he might be willing to reduce the growth of Social Security cost-of living payments but did so provisionally, depending on what else was in the final legislative package.
After suggesting that he might be willing to raise taxes only on those making more than $400,000 annually, he returned to his earlier target of raising taxes on those making more than $250,000, according to congressional sources. White House advisers say he is trying to be flexible without abandoning his principles.
But if the nation's political leaders are unable to avoid the massive spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled to start taking effect on Tuesday, the resulting fiscal mess is likely to further undermine faith in the federal government and damage the credibility of all sides.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He has written five books, most recently Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.