The price of failure on the fiscal cliff

With just five days left until the year-end deadline, there is little to no sign of a deal on the "fiscal cliff."

And even if something can be worked out, it may not be in place in time or it might be a scaled-down version of the package that was needed.

These things can change in a moment, but for now, it's clear that failure of some kind is a distinct possibility.

And it's worth looking at how that failure would affect all parties involved. Because no matter who bears the brunt of it, there's plenty of pain to go around.

Here's our early take:

* President Obama: The tone of his second term is at stake. Both Obama's approval rating and views of the economy are better than they have been since his first year in office. There are conflicting reports about just how bad it would be to go over the cliff, but we can all agree that it wouldn't be good. And even as economic optimism has returned, the progress remains tenuous. While disaster may not be guaranteed if the fiscal cliff isn't averted, it is a distinct possibility.

Obama is a man who is looking to do lots of difficult things in the coming months, including gun control and immigration reform. If the economy takes a large step back, it's going to be harder to expend time and political capital on those other things.

* Republicans: The GOP is in about as bad a place as it has been in years or maybe even decades. The party just lost handily despite the country's economic problems, it's got fast-growing demographic issues, and the tea party movement that revitalized it for a time is showing signs of petering out.

Polls show Americans are much more apt to blame the GOP for failure on the fiscal cliff. But Obama and the Democrats also have a lot further to fall and more to lose than the GOP, which is already held in very low regard.

* Government: To some degree, this isn't a partisan thing as much as it is about the ability of Washington to govern. The institution's reputation has taken a huge hit in recent years, as it has teetered on the brink of missing deadlines including the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.

But while Congress has often procrastinated, it has also generally gotten something done. If Americans start to see the economy struggle and their taxes go up, there's going to be enough blame to go around, no matter what the polls say right now. And confidence in government as a whole could truly bottom out -- if it hasn't already.

* The American people: The ones with the most to lose in this whole deal, of course, are regular Americans who could see their taxes rise, their country's economy suffer, and drastic cuts in government.

And this is despite the fact that polls show there is broad agreement on the issue that is really holding this all up -- tax hikes for the wealthy. If the American government can't pass legislation on something that two-thirds of the country agrees on, that's pretty scary.

Abercrombie appoints Schatz to Senate: Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) announced Wednesday the appointment of his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz (D), to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye's (D-Hawaii) seat.

Abercrombie opted not to go with Inouye's hand-picked successor, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D), who had emerged as the clear favorite for the job.

Hanabusa was named one of three finalists earlier Wednesday, along with former congressional candidate Esther Kiaaina (D) and Schatz.

Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D) did not make the cut, despite angling for the appointment. The state's other congresswoman, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D), was elected to Hawaii's other Senate seat in November.

By going with Schatz over Hanabusa, Abercrombie does avoid the cost of holding a special election for Hanabusa's House seat. But he also risks some backlash for going against Inouye's wishes.

Inouye's chief of staff, Jennifer Sabas, expressed frustration with Abercrombie.

"While we are very disappointed that (Inouye's wish) was not honored, it was the governor's decision to make," Sabas said in a statement. "We wish Brian Schatz the best of luck."

A senior White House official said Wednesday that Schatz would fly to Washington overnight on Air Force One, which is transporting Obama from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii.

Fixbits:

In a Fox News op-ed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, resulted from a "naïve reliance on local militias of questionable capacity and uncertain loyalty," calling it "a grave mistake."

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to temporarily block a new law requiring employers to cover contraception.

Black turnout may have exceeded white turnout on Election Day.

Actor Ben Affleck says he won't run in the special election for Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) seat.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) is now the oldest person to ever serve in the House.

Must-reads:

 "Clout Diminished, Tea Party Turns to Narrower Issues" -- Trip Gabriel, New York Times

"Look beyond the Capitol for the next speaker" -- Norman J. Ornstein, Washington Post

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