‘Cliff’ bill is a bitter pill for House’s tea party adherents to swallow

The bill was 153 pages long. It was written only the day before, by Washington insiders working in the dark of night. It was crammed with giveaways and legislative spare parts: tax breaks for wind farms and racetracks. A change to nuclear-weapons policy. Government payments for cheese.

And, most significantly, the bill will raise taxes but do relatively little to cut government spending or the massive federal deficit.

To a tea-party-influenced crop of House Republicans, the bill to resolve the “fiscal cliff” crisis was everything they had wanted to change about the way Washington worked. Too rushed. Too bloated. Too secretive. Too expensive.

“There’s lots and lots of pork in this bill,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), one of its most outspoken opponents.

On Tuesday, however, it passed on their watch. After the Senate approved the compromise, it briefly appeared that the GOP-led House would rebel against the bill. But the threat faded: For many Republicans, it appeared, the risk of rejecting the bill — and courting economic calamity — outweighed their unhappiness with the bill’s contents.

Tax breaks for rum producers and racetrack owners are some of the growth that lawmakers have added to the ”Fiscal cliff” deal. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold talks about some of the lesser known measures in the new legislation and how the deal could be blocked or amended. (The Washington Post)

The fiscal-cliff bargain had been worked out on the phone by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), two 70-year-olds with a combined 68 years in office in Washington. They stepped in after President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) tried, and failed , to reach a far-reaching agreement to tackle the debt.

Instead, McConnell and Biden lowered their ambitions and cut a “small deal.” It will raise marginal tax rates only for a sliver of high-earning individuals and avert a massive budget cut by pushing it back for two months.

But “small” was really not the the best description. The bill carries a substantial cost.

Although it will raise some taxes, it also will extend the vast majority of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, as well as loopholes for many businesses. In all, the bill will cause deficits to rise by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But that estimated increase is based on the massive tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to take effect without a resolution to the fiscal cliff.

House Republicans wanted the Bush tax cuts to be extended. But they had also wanted big spending cuts. To many conservatives among them, the bill looked like a massive failure of will.

“To pass something at 2 o’clock in the morning, when the senators didn’t even get a real good chance to look at it, we’re tired of that,” said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), elected in 2010 and defeated in November. He faced the prospect of casting his final vote in Congress on this package.

“I think it’s important to do it right. There’s a lot of us who feel that way. This is what we did with Obamacare — now look what we’re living with,” Walsh said, referring to the health-care law. “We don’t want to do that again.”

The bill that McConnell and Biden crafted was also not small in a physical sense. It ran to more than 24,000 words of small type. And many of those words had nothing to do with the marquee controversies of the fiscal cliff.

Instead, McConnell and Biden had included Capitol Hill’s version of stowaways: “riders,” unrelated provisions, attached to this bill because somebody in power wanted badly for them to pass.

“It’s a train, leaving the station, as they used to say,” said Roberton Williams of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “Climb aboard and go for a ride.”

There were dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff. The renewable-energy industry got one worth $12 billion over 10 years. The owners of auto-racing tracks got one that will cost $78 million. A $1 million break will help coal-mining operations on Indian lands.

Another oddball provision dealt with excise taxes on imported rum, which the U.S. government mainly funnels to the territorial governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This deal said that arrangement will continue.

Nobody had said a word about excise taxes and rum on the floor of the House or the Senate in the two years since the provision was renewed the last time.

“I keep saying, let’s take the occasion to reform it,” said Pedro Pierluisi (D), Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress. Pierluisi believes that too much of this money gets funneled back to rum distillers instead of being used for economic development. “It didn’t happen this time around.”

The list went on. One provision renews an Agriculture Department price-support program through which the government buys cheese and butter from dairy farmers. That averted not a fiscal cliff but a dairy cliff: Milk prices were set to rise sharply.

The bill also blocks a 0.5 percent cost-of-living pay increase for members of Congress, reversing parts of an executive order Obama issued last week — because Congress had yet to set the federal government’s pay scale for 2013.

Another provision dealt with nuclear weapons. It will alter a law setting conditions under which the president could reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Before, this could happen only after the president certified that Russia was abiding by its treaty obligations.

The bill changed “that” to “whether.” It was unclear on Tuesday which lawmaker had demanded this. Or, for that matter, why.

To many new House Republicans, this bill looked like the kind of overstuffed, underscrutinized monster they had promised to stop. In their “Pledge to America,” made before the 2010 elections, the GOP had promised to post every bill online for three days before it got a vote.

On Tuesday, with only a few hours to look at the Senate bill, House legislators complained that they had not begun to understand what McConnell and Biden had concocted.

“It’s the only responsible way to proceed: to make sure we see and understand what’s in the bill and what we’re voting on,” said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.). “I think most of the American people would expect that. It’s how business should be done here in Washington, instead of being forced into a vote and finding out what’s in it later on.”

But in the end, Barletta voted for the bill. He had heard that Senate leaders were saying they wouldn’t vote on an amended House bill. The Senate had left the House with little choice: Accept this path to avert the cliff, or there would be no other.

“I’m not willing at this point to risk tax hikes to all Americans not knowing what the Senate will do,” he said. “We will have that fight over spending. No question.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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