Senate passes fiscal-cliff fix hours after midnight deadline; political gamesmanship moves to the House

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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WASHINGTON — The United States officially went over the fiscal cliff at midnight; but in the wee hours that followed, the Senate passed a bill to avert the cliff’s most feared economic damage, the result of a bipartisan deal that received support from 89 senators.

The deal, crafted by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, extends the current tax rates for individuals earning less than $400,000 per year and couples earning less than $450,000 annually.

It patches the alternative minimum tax to prevent it from hitting middle-class Americans, and prevents the federal estate tax from rising. The deal also delays a promised budget sequester from taking effect for two months. (RELATED: McConnell, Biden reach tentative deal on sequester)

Senate Republicans signed off on the deal in a caucus meeting around 5 p.m. Monday. Democrats were a harder sell: Biden came to the Hill to make the case for the deal around 9:00 p.m. — an effort that was for the most part successful, with just three Democrats voting against the compromise.

But the vote occurred nearly two hours after midnight, with senators waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to score the bill, though ultimately they voted without the score. Senators, staffers, reporters and capitol police rang in the New Year inside the Capitol.

There were holdouts on both sides: Democratic Sens. Tom Carper, Michael Bennett and Tom Harkin voted against the bill, along with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (RELATED: Rand Paul accuses Democrats of raising taxes just to “stick it to those rich people”)

Many who voted for the bill said it was not without misgivings.

“This agreement isn’t my ideal option, but I firmly believe going over the cliff isn’t an option at all,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns in a statement released after the vote.

“Neither side got everything it wanted in this deal,” said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in a statement. “I had to accept provisions I did not like — my preference would have been to avoid higher taxes for all Americans. But I believe this legislation is the best we could do for taxpayers and job seekers in Pennsylvania.”

“This deal is far from perfect,” said Montana Democratic Sen. John Tester in a similar statement, “but it provides the tax relief Montanans deserve while preventing irresponsible cuts that would hurt our kids and seniors.”

“This deal — while not perfect — at least gives families and businesses the certainty they need to make spending plans and budgets for the new year,” echoed Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.

The House of Representatives will not vote on the bill until later on Tuesday. House Republican leaders made it clear that they would not be rushed into voting for a bill that they had not had time to vet fully, and did not make any commitment to support it. (RELATED — Bait and Switch: In face of fiscal cliff, Obama demands spending boost for 2013)

“The House will honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement if it is passed,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a joint statement shortly after 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

“Decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members — and the American people — have been able to review the legislation.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted: “When a final agreement is reached and passed by the Senate, I will present it to the House Democratic Caucus.”

President Obama called it a victory, if an imperfect one, in a statement early Tuesday morning.

“Leaders from both parties in the Senate came together to reach an agreement that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support today that protects 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small business owners from a middle class tax hike. 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,” he said.

“There’s more work to do to reduce our deficits, and I’m willing to do it,” he added. “But tonight’s agreement ensures that, going forward, we will continue to reduce the deficit through a combination of new spending cuts and new revenues from the wealthiest Americans. And as we address our ongoing fiscal challenges, I will continue to fight every day on behalf of the middle class and all those fighting to get into the middle class to forge an economy that grows from the middle out, not from the top down.”

It remains unclear whether the bill will have the votes to pass the House.

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