'Cliff' bill to House, but doubts as legislators suggest more spending cuts are needed
WASHINGTON — Maneuvered into a political corner, House Republicans sorted glumly through unsavory fiscal cliff choices in a New Year's Day struggle that wore into the night, casting doubt on emergency legislation to prevent widespread tax increases and painful across-the-board spending cuts.
"I do not support the bill. We are looking, though, for the best path forward," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., reflecting a widespread view among Republicans that the legislation should be changed to add billions in spending cuts.
Yet as Capitol lights burned late in an extraordinary second straight night of negotiations, a clamor for revisions became tempered by concerns that the Senate would refuse to consider any changes, sending the bill into limbo and saddling Republicans with the blame for a whopping middle class tax increase.
Adding to the GOP discomfort, one Senate Democratic leadership aide said Majority Leader Harry Reid "will absolutely not take up the bill" if the House changes it. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a requirement to keep internal deliberations private.
The legislation cleared the Senate hours earlier on a lopsided pre-dawn vote of 89-8. Administration officials met at the White House to monitor its progress.
Despite Cantor's remarks, Speaker John Boehner took no public position on the bill as he sought to negotiate a conclusion to the final crisis of a two-year term full of them.
It wasn't the first time that the tea party-infused House Republican majority has rebelled against the party establishment since the GOP took control of the chamber 24 months ago. But with the two-year term set to end Thursday at noon, it was likely the last. And as was true in earlier cases of a threatened default and government shutdown, the brinkmanship came on a matter of economic urgency, leaving the party open to a public backlash if tax increases do take effect on tens of millions.
After intensive deliberations — a pair of rank-and-file meetings sandwiched around a leadership session, the GOP high command had not yet settled on a course of action by early evening.
Instead, they canvassed Republicans to see if they wanted simply to vote on the Senate measure, or whether they wanted first to try and add spending cuts totaling about $300 billion over a decade. The cuts had passed the House twice earlier in the year but are opposed by most if not all Senate Democrats.
"We've gone as far as we can go," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "I think people are ready to bring this to a conclusion, and know we have a whole year ahead of us" for additional fights over spending.
The economic as well as political stakes were considerable.
Economists have warned that without action by Congress, the tax increases and spending cuts that technically took effect with the turn of the new year at midnight could send the economy into recession.
Even with enactment of the legislation, taxes are on the rise for millions.
A 2 percentage point temporary cut in the payroll tax, originally enacted two years ago to stimulate the economy, expired with the end of 2012. Neither Obama nor Republicans have made a significant effort to extend it.
The Senate-passed bill was designed to prevent that while providing for tax increases at upper incomes, as Obama campaigned for in his successful bid for a second term.
It would also prevent an expiration of extended unemployment benefits for an estimated two million jobless, block a 27 percent cut in fees for doctors who treat Medicare patients, stop a $900 pay increase for lawmakers from taking effect in March and head off a threatened spike in milk prices.
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