House vote pulls goverment off 'fiscal cliff'

Staff reports Updated: January 1, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 1, 2013

WASHINGTON — Legislation to block the "fiscal cliff" is headed to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature. The bill will avoid, for now, the major tax increases and government spending cuts that had been scheduled to take effect with the new year.

Final approval came in the House on New Year's Night. The vote was 257 to 167.

The Senate passed the bill less than 24 hours earlier.

The measure raises tax rates on incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, a victory for Obama.

It also extends expiring unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, prevents a cut in fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients and cancels a $900 pay increase due to lawmakers in March.

Another provision is designed to prevent a spike in milk prices.

The Senate-approved compromise to avert the "fiscal cliff" ran headlong into opposition from the No. 2 House Republican and other GOP lawmakers Tuesday, raising questions about how — and in what form — Congress might be able to give final approval to the measure.

"I do not support the bill," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters after Republicans held a lengthy closed-door meeting to gauge support for the compromise. Participants in the extraordinary New Year's Day meeting said there was widespread criticism that the bill did not contain enough spending cuts.

Vice President Joe Biden tried rallying House Democrats behind the deal in a separate meeting. When that session ended, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other top Democrats called on Boehner to allow the House to vote on the Senate-approved accord.

"That is what we expect. That is what the American people deserve," Pelosi told reporters.

The two closed-door gatherings of House lawmakers came just hours after the Senate used an overnight vote to easily approve the bipartisan compromise, which would negate across-the-board tax increases and sweeping spending cuts to the Pentagon and other government agencies.

In a New Year's drama that climaxed in the middle of the night, the Senate endorsed the legislation by 89-8 early Tuesday. That vote came shortly after Biden pushed Democratic senators to back the agreement that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had brokered hours earlier.

The measure would prevent middle-class taxes from going up but would raise rates on higher incomes. It would also block spending cuts for two months, extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, prevent a 27 percent cut in fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients and prevent a spike in milk prices.

The bill ensures that lawmakers will have to revisit difficult budget questions in just a few weeks, as relief from painful spending cuts expires and the government requires an increase in its borrowing cap.

As the House staged a rare New Year's Day session, it was clear that there were divisions among lawmakers from both parties.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., called it "a bad deal for America." Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said approving it would "show the American people that this Congress isn't broken."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that while he might vote for it, "I won't do it thinking we've accomplished anything here today, other than the smallest finger in a dike that in fact has hundreds of holes in it."

The measure is the first significant bipartisan tax increase since 1990, when former President George H.W. Bush violated his "read my lips" promise on taxes. It would raise an additional $620 billion over the coming decade when compared with revenues after tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, during the Bush administration. But because those policies expired at midnight Monday, the measure is officially scored as a whopping $3.9 trillion tax cut over the next decade.

Allowed to lapse was a 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security payroll tax first enacted in late 2010 to help prod consumer spending and goose the economy. It meant an extra $1,000 in the wallets of typical families earning $50,000 annually.

An extension of the cut — which temporarily reduced the tax to 4.2 percent — lacked strong support from both parties, including the White House.

President Barack Obama praised the agreement after the Senate's vote.

"While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country and the House should pass it without delay," Obama said in a statement. "This agreement will also grow the economy and shrink our deficits in a balanced way — by investing in our middle class, and by asking the wealthy to pay a little more."

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