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Congress approves ‘fiscal cliff’ deal in bipartisan vote

After briefly pumping the brakes, House Republicans were poised Tuesday night to pass the deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" despite deep misgivings about hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending included in the compromise foisted on them by Senate Republicans and the White House.

The Senate ratified the deal early Tuesday morning in an 89-8 vote, and the House followed suit later in the day, voting 257-167 in favor of the deal — though Republicans were nearly two-to-one opposed to it.

Rank-and-file GOP lawmakers had briefly rebelled early in the day, but were unable to come up with a better alternative, leaving them no choice but to let the Senate bill pass on the strength of Democratic votes.

"We went over the cliff, and we are pulling ourselves back," Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, said on the House floor.

The nation technically fell over part of the fiscal cliff as the year rang in and tax rates reverted to their levels under President Clinton, but all sides said they have a bit of time before those taxes show up as higher withholding rates in workers' paychecks.

The bill is a tremendous victory for President Obama, who won almost everything he sought in the deal, and halted the GOP's momentum of the last two years on spending cuts.

It also marks an outbreak of bipartisanship at the end of a Congress where that was starkly absent, and it gives the 112th Congress a major parting accomplishment after two years that set records for futility.

"It is a good way for us to have a happy start to a new year," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Whether it would break the spirit of the House GOP, which has repeatedly butted heads with Mr. Obama as it pushed a conservative message, remained to be seen.

House Republican leaders faced yet another rebellion Tuesday afternoon, as rank-and-file members took a close look at the deal, which combines $330 billion in new spending with $3.6 trillion in extended tax breaks for most Americans, but a tax increase on the wealthiest.

"We wanted spending cuts — this bill has spending increases. Are you kidding me?" said Rep. John Campbell, California Republican. "So we get tax increases and spending increases? Come on."

Conservatives sought to write an alternative that included more spending cuts, but they were too divided to be able to muster a majority for any of the options, and ended up accepting the Senate-passed deal.

Even as they voted, however, both sides in the debate were already drawing lines for the next fights.

Rep. Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said this bill sets the cap on revenue the government will collect, and said from here on the focus will be on tax reforms to streamline the code.

But Democrats disputed that, saying the bill sets the stage for future tax increases.

During the day's debates, Democrats said the GOP recklessly pushed the country toward the fiscal cliff, and they poked at Republicans.

"There is a kind of 'Let them eat cake' feeling in here tonight," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, New York Democrat.

The action marks a victory for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who negotiated the deal with Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, said he wasn't happy with the Senate's bill, but said adding an amendment may "draw this thing out and create more problems."

Rep. Charles W. Dent, Pennsylvania Republican, was also leery of late-minute changes, noting the Senate could send back the same bill it passed early Tuesday or tack on measures that make it even tougher for House Republicans to swallow.

The deal had seemed on a glide path after passing the Senate by a 89-8 vote in the early-morning hours.

Senators adopted the 157-page bill even before they received a final cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

Only three Democrats and five Republicans voted against it, including two of the GOP's potential 2016 presidential candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

"I think our sense, at least in the House, was that a number of the Republicans that voted for it must have been drunk, because it really was a number that wasn't reflective of where we thought some of these people were going to be on a bill like this," Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio Republican, said after emerging from a closed-door House GOP meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Armed with the CBO score, released just as the GOP went into that meeting, Republicans blasted the Senate deal. That score showed the bill included net new spending of $330 billion.

Democrats had pleaded throughout the day for Republicans to quickly bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote to match the Senate.

"The difference between a divided government and dysfunctional government is the willingness to compromise. We saw that in the Senate," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "That means looking at an agreement and deciding whether on balance it helps, not Democrats and Republicans, but whether it helped move the country forward."

Democrats cheered what they kept out of the deal, such as changes to Social Security benefit calculations, and applauded Mr. Biden, their chief negotiator, for holding firm on including unemployment benefits and extended tax credits for college tuitions and other party priorities.

The CBO said that between new tax credits, higher payments for doctors who treat Medicare patients, and extended unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, the bill adds $330 billion in net new spending over the next decade.

The nonpartisan agency said the bill contains about $25.1 billion in new cuts, but only $2 billion are scheduled to take effect in 2013, and the entire package is overshadowed by the new spending.

The CBO also warned that some of the cuts Congress is counting are from programs where CBO never expected the money to be spent anyway — such as cuts to the Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan, which was part of Mr. Obama's health care law.

All told, the bill deepens the deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade, when the new tax cuts and spending are combined.

The bill also delays by two months the automatic spending cuts slated to take effect Wednesday, with a promise to reduce spending in the future to cover for part of them.

The deal extends Bush-era tax rates for individuals making $400,000 or less, and for households with incomes of $450,000 or less. It also extends many of the tax credits from Mr. Obama's 2009 stimulus law, and provides continued enhanced unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work for months.

Mr. Obama gave in on some demands, including accepting a higher threshold for estate and income tax hikes. And the bill also repeals the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act, a long-term care program which was part of his 2010 health care law.

The administration had put a hold on the CLASS program but had earlier resisted GOP efforts to repeal it.

David Sherfinski and Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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