The late-night, last-minute deal allows the nation to avoid the severe austerity measures that were slated to take effect in the new year. But it does not dramatically shrink the government’s soaring national debt or address the nagging problem of persistent unemployment.
And it pushes off for two months a larger, potentially more painful battle over broader spending cuts and the federal debt limit, which means that the knock-down, drag-out fight that kept lawmakers in the Capitol building through the New Year’s holiday is likely to be repeated, in some fashion, over the next eight weeks.
The 257 to 167 House vote in favor of the fiscal cliff deal came at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday night, less than 24 hours after the Senate overwhelmingly passed the legislation. The measure must now be signed by President Obama, who left Washington shortly after the vote to rejoin his family on vacation in Hawaii.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) cast his vote in favor of the measure. But he and most other top GOP leaders took no public position on it during the pre-vote debate. Boehner declined even to deliver his usual closing argument, leaving House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) to defend the measure as the “largest tax cut in American history.”
The bill will indeed shield millions of middle-class taxpayers from tax increases set to take effect this month. But it also will let rates rise on wages and investment profits for households pulling in more than $450,000 a year, marking the first time in more than two decades that a broad tax increase has been approved with GOP support.
The measure also will keep benefits flowing to 2 million unemployed workers on the verge of losing their federal checks. And it will delay for two months automatic cuts to the Pentagon and other agencies that had been set to take effect Wednesday.
Many economists had warned that the scheduled tax increases and spending cuts would have plunged the economy back into recession.
Conservatives complained bitterly that the legislation would raise taxes without making any significant cuts in government spending. For much of the day, the measure appeared headed for defeat as Boehner contemplated tacking on billions in spending cuts, a move that would have derailed a compromise that the White House and Senate leaders had carefully crafted.
In the end, GOP lawmakers decided not to take a gamble that could force the nation to face historic tax increases for virtually every American — and leave House Republicans to take the blame.
“I don’t know if playing chicken with the American people at this point is in the best interest of the people,” said freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.).