Congress moved toward approving a last-minute deal Tuesday to pull the nation from the brink of an historic fiscal cliff, as reluctant House Republicans put aside their qualms about the plan.
Conservatives threatened throughout the day to halt the bill, approved 89 to 8 by the Senate early Tuesday, because of concerns that it didn’t cut spending enough or take serious steps to dent the national debt. Their fury was fueled further by a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the package would add $3.97 trillion to deficits over the next decade.
But they also realized that scuttling the package could quickly put the nation’s economy in jeopardy. If Congress does not act, tax rates would jump for all Americans automatic spending cuts would kick in Wednesday.
In private meetings Tuesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives expressed concern that once domestic financial markets re-open after the New Year’s Day holiday Wednesday, reaction to legislative gridlock could be severe. It’s a risk, said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., “we all recognize.”
If the House goes along with the Senate, the spending cuts would be postponed two months, and Bush-era tax rates would prevail for all individuals making up to $250,000 and families making up to $300,000. Taxpayers making more than that would pay higher taxes on capital gains and dividends. Individuals making more than $400,000 - $450,000 for families - would pay a top income tax rate of 39.6 percent, up from the current 35 percent.
The plan would also tie the alternative minimum tax to inflation, a big relief for an estimated 30 million taxpayers who could have been hit with higher bills. Other measures include an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and avoiding a huge cut in Medicare payments to doctors for a year.
The vote in the House would come after a day of furious closed-door lobbying—and arm-twisting. Vice President Joe Biden met for two hours with House Democrats. While he did not find overwhelming enthusiasm, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted that the measure would get a “strong majority” from her party.
At the same time, Republicans met privately twice, for a total of nearly three hours. They heard opposition from Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has a strong following among conservatives. “There was a lot of discontent in that room,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio.
The congressional turmoil was no surprise. Republicans have long been unhappy with Democrats’ reluctance to agree to big spending cuts, and were not pleased the latest deal delayed the automatic cuts.
“This does nothing about getting the $16.4 trillion debt under control, said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio
Republicans made a last-ditch effort to pass more spending cuts, offering to consider the same package of $328 billion in cuts that passed on a party-line vote December 20, but could not muster enough support Tuesday. Many Republicans worried that attaching the measure would never make it through the Senate, putting the entire fiscal cliff deal at risk.
"We don’t want to do anything in the House that would create a poison pill for the Senate," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Senate Democratic leaders told members to expect no more roll call votes in the current Congress, which ends Thursday morning. If the two houses can’t agree—and it’s highly doubtful the Senate, controlled by Democrats, would approve such a big spending plan by voice vote--the legislation dies and would have to be re-introduced in the new Congress that convenes at noon that day.
Few lawmakers in either party seemed happy with the plan, as the unease Tuesday crossed party and ideological lines.
“This punts the problem,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “It just sets us up for more fights.”
House Republicans were not pleased that they had virtually no input into the deal, crafted by Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
LaTourette called the plan “a package by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians.”
The loudest protests came from the 87 Republican freshmen first elected in 2010, swept into office on a pledge to drastically slash federal spending.
“There is a resignation that the big steps forward my class wanted to take is not possible with this Congress,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. “Only small steps forward are absolutely possible.”
Whether he and others could accept such small steps was the key to approving the deal. Veteran Republicans argued the package was as good as they were going to get.
“Let’s recognize we avoided what could have been a terrible outcome,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
He urged resisting changes. “It’s too late in the game,” he said. “You can keep tinkering with this, but you’re not going to make it perfect.”
Democrats seemed more willing to accept the package, but weren’t happy about it.
"The difference between a divided government and dysfunctional government is the willingness to compromise," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "That means looking at an agreement and deciding whether on balance it helps not Democrats or Republicans, but whether it helps move the country forward."
Democratic leaders wouldn’t say how many of the 191 caucus members might vote for the plan, just that they were examining it.
Biden, said Pelosi, discussed details of the deal and "what lies ahead, and difficult negotiations as we go forward."
She said Democrats were "weighing the pros and cons and weighing the equities of not going over the cliff.”
Others were more confident. Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., flatly predicted the income tax increase would be averted, though Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the gridlock was all too characteristic of this Congress.