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Fiscal cliff deal a 'debacle' for the GOP, sets up bigger fight in months

Analysis:  After a 2012 election that launched countless queries about the future of a fractured Republican party, 2013 -- so far -- is not looking exactly like a year of Kumbaya for the GOP.

NBC's political director, Chuck Todd, weighs in on the current Congress and the decision to pass the fiscal cliff bill, calling it a "debacle" for the GOP. Unless they unify on their aims, Todd says, "they are not going to be an effective force."

The short-term compromise that Congress passed  last Tuesday night to avoid the immediate impacts of the so-called fiscal cliff only sets up much bigger battles in the coming months as Washington will once again square off over automatic cuts in military and non-entitlement discretionary spending, the budget resolution and an extension of the nation’s ability to continue borrowing.

“This is the story of this Congress, “ NBC’s Chuck Todd said on Wednesday’s “Today” show.  “Every major decision that they came up with, and it began with a threat of a government shut down just two months into this Congress. And then of course we had the debt ceiling showdown, then it culminated with this fiscal cliff and all we’ve done is created what’s coming in March. … Take all the fights we had separately and put them in one fight. And put them all expiring at the same time – debt ceiling, funding the entire federal government (that expires), and then this.”

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walk to a Republican conference meeting to discuss the "fiscal cliff" bill.

Todd called the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff a “debacle” for the Republican Party.  “yesterday we almost had the Republican leadership in the House almost completely undermine the Republican leadership in the Senate. It looked like they threatened to scuttle the whole thing, and they ended up helping Barack Obama raise taxes more than any Republican Party in a generation has helped anybody raise taxes, and they got nothing for it. … The Republican Party has to figure out what it wants to be, first, before they sit down at the negotiating table. And then they’ve got to figure out who’s going to do the negotiating for them. Is it Mitch McConnell? Is it John Boehner? Who runs the Republican Party? I think that’s unclear out of all of this. … Until the Republican Party figures is sort of unified in what it wants to do, it’s not going to be an effective negotiating force against the president.”

The late-night House vote that approved a compromise deal to avert the fiscal cliff included notable divisions between Republican leaders, with some of House Speaker Boehner's top deputies breaking with him to oppose a measure that might have been embraced by conservatives two decades ago.

Tuesday night’s drama helped show that there is a governing majority in Congress of sorts -- just not one that necessarily includes the majority of the party that will continue to control the House of Representatives for at least the next two years.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois all voted against the deal, which garnered only 85 Republican ayes compared to 151 Republican nos.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro reports that while some are reading into the House Speaker John Boehner-Majority Leader Eric Cantor vote split, there isn't likely a Machiavellian undermining of Boehner at play by Cantor.

The strong opposition from House Republicans was surprising in light of an overwhelming vote from GOP senators early Tuesday morning. Just eight in the upper chamber -- and just five Republicans -- opposed the deal, with one 'no' vote -- from Florida's Marco Rubio -- sparking instant speculation about how opposition to the agreement would impact his possible presidential ambitions.

On the House side, Budget Committee Chairman and possible 2016 presidential contender Paul Ryan did support the deal, prompting questions about how the former vice presidential candidate would justify supporting tax increases during future Republican primary debates against Rubio.

The immediacy of that speculation points to the dramatic rift within Boehner's caucus between pragmatism and purity on taxes and spending, a divide deepened by the fact that most of his caucus members are far more vulnerable to primary challenges from within their own party than from general election losses.

President Obama will sign the "fiscal cliff" legislation approved by a divided House of Representatives, preventing middle class tax hikes and huge spending cuts that many feared could have pushed the economy into a new recession. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

While the cliff deal contained plenty for Democrats to cheer (or at least breath a sigh of relief for) -- including none of the expected changes to Social Security and Medicare feared by progressives -- it also offered plums for Republicans who have long fought for reforms to tax rates on estates and investment income.

But those components, as well as the codification of Bush-era tax cuts for a majority of American families, were not enough to win the support of conservatives who were largely swept into office with promises to eliminate red tape, slash federal spending, and adhere to a rigid program of tax cuts -- including those for wealthy "job creators."

"The day is coming when principled pragmatic Constitutional Conservatives will be sought after to restore the American Republic, and we will answer the call," said departing Rep. Allen West of Florida.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., joins Morning Joe to discuss the last-minute agreement reached by the House on New Year's Day. The New Yorker's John Cassidy also joins the conversation.

Other opponents included outspoken conservatives considered possible contenders in future Senate races, like Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Steve King of Iowa. Incoming senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina also voted no, despite the overwhelming bipartisan vote for the deal in the upper chamber.

The deeper-than-expected divisions in the vote left Boehner in the rare situation of being a majority leader on the losing end of legislation opposed by a majority his own caucus. While he did support the Senate-passed fiscal deal after weeks of haggling, he did not speak on the floor in support of the bipartisan compromise on the final day of debate.

(That's not to say that the famously emotive Boehner was leading a chorus of praise for the Democrats who pushed the Senate measure; he reportedly offered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid an unprintable four-letter recommendation in exchange for Reid's suggestion that he was leading "a dictatorship" in the House.)


NBC's Carrie Dann contributed to this report