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Lacking support, House pulls last-ditch cliff fix, heads home

House Speaker John Boehner says the GOP 'Plan B' to avert the "fiscal cliff" was pulled from the House floor due to a lack of Republican support. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Updated 8:52 a.m. ET -- House Speaker John Boehner abandoned efforts to pass his ‘Plan B’ version of legislation to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff after conservative Republican rank-and-file members refused to follow their leader.  In a dramatic defeat for House GOP leadership, Boehner suddenly cancelled a planned vote on the measure late Thursday night, conceding that he could not muster enough support within his own ranks for a proposal that would have raised tax rates on those making over $1 million a year. 

Republican leaders announced they would shut down the House and head home for the Christmas holiday without legislative action to halt a mix of automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in just 11 days.

At the end of a week that began with high hopes for compromise on a bargain to correct the nation's fiscal course, Washington now appears further apart than ever.

Boehner intended that his last-ditch tax effort, coupled with revised spending reductions, would give the GOP-dominated House continued leverage in its negotiations with the White House and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats.  Having failed to convince his own party to go along, his high-stakes gambit now leaves the Speaker in a much weakened bargaining position on the fiscal cliff and battles yet to come with the White House.

The House will now recess and members have been advised that they will return "when needed" before the end of the year.

"The House did not take up the tax measure today because it did not have sufficient support from our members to pass," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. "Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.  The House has already passed legislation to stop all of the January 1 tax rate increases and replace the sequester with responsible spending cuts that will begin to address our nation's crippling debt.  The Senate must now act."

The Senate is expected to return to session after the Christmas holiday on December 27.

In a statement, the White House promised continued work with Congress.

"The President’s main priority is to ensure that taxes don’t go up on 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses in just a few short days. The President will work with Congress to get this done and we are hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan solution quickly that protects the middle class and our economy."

Boehner proposed the "Plan B" legislation Tuesday, saying that it would provide a backstop to prevent middle class tax rates from jumping if a larger deal was not reached by the cliff's deadline at the end of the year.

But the measure was panned from both sides, with the White House calling it a political ploy that would be subject to a presidential veto and Senate Democrats pledging that it would not even be taken up for a vote in the upper chamber.

Tax watchdog Club for Growth also urged Republicans to vote "no" on the measure, as did conservative group Freedomworks -- which originally supported the Plan B effort before abruptly switching to opposition on Thursday afternoon. The socially conservative Family Research Council also scolded that "Congress should know better" before the vote.

Boehner and other GOP leaders had firmly indicated earlier Thursday that they had sufficient support to pass the Plan B legislation, along with another package of spending cuts. "We're going to have the votes to pass both the permanent tax relief bill as well as the spending reduction bill," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters at a press conference at the Capitol."

But a breakdown became evident after the GOP-dominated House only narrowly passed the package of spending reductions, which was intended to replace automatic defense cuts, or "sequestration." That measure, meant to encourage possible conservative dissenters to support the tax proposal, squeaked to victory by a margin of 215-209, with twenty-one Republicans voting against the bill.

The House then immediately went into an unexpected recess, with members huddled behind closed doors before announcing the end of votes for the evening.

A source in the room tells NBC News that Boehner made an impassioned plea for his members to support the bill, saying they would lose their negotiating power if they didn't pass it. But his pleas - and urging from an emotional Mike Kelly, R-Penn., were not enough to muster the needed votes.

Freshman lawmaker and public Boehner critic Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, called the measure's defeat “a victory for Republican principles,” saying the GOP should not have to vote for "a show bill."

But fellow Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio struck a mournful tune after the vote was abandoned.

"It's unbelievable, this is horrible," he said. "I'm angry, I'm sad for my friend the Speaker, and I'm sorry for the country.  We deserve better."

NBC's Frank Thorp and Luke Russert contributed to this story.