WASHINGTON – A “fiscal cliff” deal that breezed through the Senate ran into stiff Republican opposition but passed in the House 257-167 late Tuesday after GOP lawmakers couldn’t win enough support for an effort to add spending cuts to the measure.
Facing a rebellion among the Republican rank-and-file – and feeling deeply uncomfortable themselves about the Senate bill’s lack of budget cuts – House leaders scrambled to put together a spending-cut amendment to add to the Senate deal.
But when that approach failed to muster enough support to ensure passage of such an amendment, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, decided to let the Senate-passed measure come up for a vote.
Most House Democrats supported the Senate bill.
Earlier in the day, several Republicans took to the floor of the House to voice their objections.
“We’re taking up a bill that will not do anything to cut spending,” said Rep. Louis Goehmert, R-Texas. “I’m embarrassed.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said: “The House must postpone this vote until Congress and the American people have time to study and evaluate this extraordinarily complex legislation and its impact on taxes, revenue, the economy, our debt and a myriad of other issues.”
Postponing the vote would have carried a big risk, however. The world’s financial markets have stayed strong and steady despite congressional confusion over avoiding the fiscal cliff, but that could have changed if the markets reopened today with no deal in place.
There would have been a big risk, too, in the House amending the fiscal cliff bill and sending it back to the Senate for reconsideration: The Senate might not reassemble to consider the amended legislation.
Asked about that possibility by Bloomberg News, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: “They have to do what they think they have to do – I’ve already done what I’ve done. My senators have gone home.”
What’s more, the 112th Congress is running out of time to solve the fiscal cliff problem. The old Congress ends and the next one begins at noon Thursday.
If no deal is in place by then, the Senate bill would die, and new fiscal cliff legislation would have to be passed by the 113th Congress, which will feature a larger Democratic majority in the Senate and a smaller GOP majority in the House.
House Democrats urged an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill. “That is what [Boehner said would happen], what we expect and what the American people deserve,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The day of dramatic waiting in the House followed a 2 a.m., 89-8 vote Senate vote in favor of a fiscal cliff deal hammered out by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. That deal would keep tax rates steady for most Americans, while increasing the rate on individual income of more than $400,000 and household income of more than $450,000. The tax rate on those incomes will rise to 39.6 percent from the current 25 percent.
The deal averts an income tax hike on more than 90 percent of American taxpayers, but under the deal, they will have to pay higher payroll taxes. A two-year, 2-percentage-point reduction in the payroll tax was allowed to expire, boosting the rate back up to 6.2 percent.
In addition, the deal boosts the tax rate on dividend and capital gains from 15 percent to 20 percent for upper-income earners, preserves the child tax credit and a credit for college tuition, and fixes the alternative minimum tax so that 30 million Americans would not have to pay it.
The bill also extends unemployment benefits for 2 million Americans, preserves current Medicare payments for doctors and fixes federal dairy policy to prevent a sudden spike in milk prices.
Though the bill included all those popular measures, it found little love among members of either party.
“Virtually no one believes what we have before us tonight is a long-term solution” to the nation’s fiscal problems, said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
“We’re about to have a hold-your-nose vote in the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
In addition to saving most Americans from dramatic income tax hikes, the bill also puts off for two months a series of draconian spending cuts that most lawmakers wanted to avoid.
But in doing so, it sets the stage for Congress to again consider those spending cuts at the same time as it will have to vote on raising the federal debt ceiling, as well as on a six-month spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2013.
That being the case, “the legislation before me is no great victory,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. “It’s only a partial answer to a much larger problem, and it sets the nation up for another fiscal showdown in mere months.”