The following editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star on Thursday:

It could have been worse. No deal on the fiscal cliff really would have been inexcusable.

But that doesn't lessen the stink of too little, too late and too timid.

By now, it's evident that President Obama and Congress squandered an excellent opportunity to make some tough decisions needed to cut spending and better control future deficits.

Instead of that kind of grand deal, the politicians put forward a far less impressive pact that-nevertheless - deserved to be approved. In fact, it pretty much had to pass to prevent a possible stock market meltdown and a double-dip recession early this year.

On the positive side of the ledger, the bill passed late Tuesday:

• Maintains current tax rates for about 98 percent of Americans while reasonably boosting them for families making more than $450,000 a year.

• Makes sure the alternative minimum tax won't impose higher taxes on an estimated 30 million people in future years.

• Extends critical unemployment insurance for 2 million Americans.

• Stops a 27 percent reduction in payments to Medicare providers.

• Keeps middle-income friendly benefits such as the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit and college tuition tax credit.

• Puts off for a few months automatic spending reductions for defense, infrastructure, job training and education investment.

Obama gets to claim a partial victory for keeping part of a major campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans - though not on as many as he originally wanted.

Meanwhile, Republicans can point out that they have permanently extended the so-called Bush tax cuts.

Leaders should spare us the backslapping, however. Weeks of unproductive negotiations and political finger pointing have cost the nation. Let us count the ways.

• Congress didn't act to make America's entitlement programs - primarily Social Security and Medicare - sustainable for the long term.

• The politicians didn't make needed reforms in the U.S. tax code.

• They didn't figure out how to raise the debt ceiling.

• And they most inexcusably didn't detail sound ways to cut future federal spending.

That's the biggest nut left uncracked in Washington. Obama along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress largely have failed to outline what they want to slice, why that must be done and how those moves would affect Americans.

So what's ahead?

Expect more pontificating from all sides about whether to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in a couple of months. Prediction: The hike will be approved, because not doing so could dramatically harm the nation's credit rating.

Republicans will posture that they want to cut spending before voting for the higher ceiling. The GOP (and Democrats) ought to say exactly what they want to get rid of - from defense spending to entitlement reform - as part of those negotiations. That would be a novel approach from the so-called leaders in our nation's capital.

Finally, Tuesday wasn't a total waste.

After hearing from many outraged Americans, elected officials hastily approved the "Congressional Pay Freeze and Fiscal Responsibility Act." It rescinds Obama's executive order from last week, which would have given Congress a $900 pay raise in 2013, to $174,900 annually.

Based on its dysfunctional behavior of the last few weeks, Congress certainly didn't deserve such a raise.