The Constitution of the United States has no provision for a popular referendum or initiative.
But, that does not mean that Congress cannot, analogous to how it handles military base closings, agree to conduct such a referendum, and to vote subsequently to enact its results.
What if the fiscal cliff were settled by each party submitting its fiscal plan in a final bill that also provided for a national referendum on the alternative plans to be held on January 31, 2013? It would be paid for by the federal government, conducted based upon the voter registration that was in effect on November 6th, and the same voting procedures.
The parties would be allowed to put whatever provision it wished into the bill, but without any right to change the language of its provisions once the bill is passed establishing the referendum. The plans would be branded on the voters' ballots as "Democratic" or "Republican." The position on each state's ballot would be the same as the position of the presidential candidates were.
The results would be decided by the popular vote.
The parties would agree in advance to hold a vote in Congress after the popular vote tallies are completed, but in no case later than March 1, 2013, to ratify whichever proposal received the most votes. [Between now and March 1, current law would be simply extended].
That would be it. We would have our so-called fiscal crisis solved.
One objection to this proposal is that it would show the world that our Congress is dysfunctional, unable to solve the nation's problems.
This brings to mind a story that Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev told President Kennedy: "A man was running through the Kremlin shouting 'Khrushchev is a fool, Khrushchev is a fool'. He was sentenced to 25 years at hard labor -- three years for insulting the Chairman of the Communist party, and 22 years for revealing a state secret".
Enough said about the objection.
Each party would have to consider not only what its own preferences might be, but also what would likely capture a majority of the popular vote.
The pressures on each side would be similar to "baseball arbitration." In that process, after all the arguments are made, and the arbitrator has made, but not revealed, his decision, each side submits a final proposal. The outcome is not what the arbitrator decided, but which of the proposals submitted by each side comes closest to what the arbitrator's decision.
In this case the "arbitrator" is the American people.
There would be no restrictions on what could be included in each party's proposal. For example, if Republicans want to add "defunding Planned Parenthood," that is totally up to them. If Democrats want to include pay-check fairness for women, that is their decision.
Each party's proposal would be voted on as a whole, not broken down into its individual elements for a vote. The CBO could score each package, and that score would be included with the proposal. The CBO would also calculate what each proposal's debt-ceiling would need to be 2 years subsequent to the vote, and that debt-ceiling would also be passed as part of the vote.
Everything would be settled. If we do not like the outcome, we would have only ourselves to blame.