WASHINGTON — Congress' excruciating, extraordinary New Year's Day approval of a compromise averting a prolonged tumble off the fiscal cliff hands President Barack Obama most of the tax boosts on the rich that he campaigned on. It also prevents House Republicans from facing blame for blocking tax cuts for most American households, though most GOP lawmakers parted ways with Speaker John Boehner and opposed the measure.
Passage also lays the groundwork for future battles between the two sides over federal spending and debt.
Capping a holiday season political spectacle that featured enough high and low notes for a Broadway musical, the GOP-run House voted final approval for the measure by 257-167 late Tuesday. That came after the Democratic-led Senate used a wee-hours 89-8 roll call to assent to the bill, belying the partisan brinkmanship that colored much of the path to the final deal.
"A central promise of my campaign for president was to change the tax code that was too skewed towards the wealthy at the expense of working middle-class Americans," Obama said at the White House before flying to Hawaii to resume his holiday break. "Tonight we've done that."
The bill would boost the top 35 percent income tax rate to 39.6 percent for incomes exceeding $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, while continuing decade-old income tax cuts for everyone else. In his re-election campaign last year Obama had vowed to boost rates on earnings at somewhat lower levels — $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families.
Scores of GOP lawmakers voted for the measure, reversing a quarter-century of solid Republican opposition to boosting any tax rates at all.
The bill would also raise taxes top earners pay on dividends, capital gains and inherited estates; permanently stop the alternative minimum tax from raising levies on millions of middle-income families; extend expiring jobless benefits; prevent cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors; and delay for two months billions in budget-wide cuts in defense and domestic programs slated for this year.
Both sides lamented their failure to reach a significant deficit-cutting agreement. But neither much mentioned another omission: The immediate expiration of a two-year, 2-percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax.
That break, which put an extra $1,000 in the wallets of typical families earning $50,000 a year, was an Obama priority two years ago as a way to boost consumer spending and spark the flagging economy, but it fell victim this time to other priorities.
House Democrats voted by an overwhelming 172-16 for the agreement, which was crafted over the weekend by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden.
But Republicans tilted against it 151-85. It is rare for leaders to bring a bill to the House floor that will be opposed by most lawmakers from their own party, and the decision underscored the pressure GOP leaders felt to approve the legislation.
Boehner, R-Ohio, took no public stance on the measure before the vote. But he guided the compromise to the House floor after an unsuccessful attempt by many conservatives to persuade leaders to add spending cuts to the bill.
Had the House inserted those budget cuts and the Senate refused to consider them, the legislation could have died. That left House Republicans worried that voters might blame them for a huge, sweeping tax increase and for any swoon the nation's financial markets might take when they reopened Wednesday.
"You can be right and you can be dead right. Which is it?" said Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., of the quandary Republicans faced. "Right now you need to take the tax issue off the table" and move on to a focus on curbing spending, he said.
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