Our long national nightmare is over — for two months.
On Tuesday evening, the House approved a fiscal-cliff package that was passed by the Senate earlier in the day. In the hours before the vote, conservatives expressed frustration with the deal, which was finalized on Monday by Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. But many rank-and-file Republicans ultimately supported the measure, mostly thanks to the eleventh-hour blessing of Speaker John Boehner at a closed caucus meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Members of both parties seemed eager to end this winter standoff over taxes and spending.
“They did what they had to do, and that’s it,” says outgoing Representative Allen West of Florida. “Happy new year.”
The end of the fiscal-cliff impasse means a majority of federal taxpayers will see their current income-tax rates permanently extended. If you are an individual who makes $400,000 or less, or you’re a couple who jointly make $450,000 or less, your tax rates remain the same. The legislation also prevents the Alternative Minimum Tax from affecting many Americans, and it raises tax rates on capital gains and dividends. Other parts of the deal include a yearlong extension of federal unemployment benefits and a two-month delay of steep spending cuts scheduled to hit the Pentagon.
The brevity of the defense-cut delay ensures that more fiscal fights are imminent. Indeed, several House Republicans are already preparing for a political brawl in late February, when the delay expires. Negotiations over those defense cuts, as well as the expected debate over the debt ceiling, are seen as an opportunity for Republicans to push for more cuts and entitlement reform.
But for now, most Republicans are happy to see the fiscal-cliff episode end, even if it was with a whimper and much disagreement. “People wanted to get this finished, move on, and fight another day,” says Representative Bobby Schilling of Illinois, who voted against the plan. “There is unhappiness about how the Senate went about this, but that wasn’t enough to stop the vote.”
Conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and Heritage Action opposed the Biden-McConnell deal, but their opposition was far from a unanimous position among right-of-center activists. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told CNN that the vote was “technically not a violation” of his group’s anti-tax pledge. Due to the fiscal cliff, “the tax cuts disappear and we’re restoring them for most people,” Norquist said. “We’re not raising taxes.” In the Senate, tea-party stars such as Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) voted against it, but other conservatives, such as Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) voted for it. Across the board, Republicans were dissatisfied, but hardly united in opposition.
The final tally of the House vote was 257–167, with several top House members voting “nay,” including Eric Cantor (Va.), the majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the whip. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, voted in support of the plan. “As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing,” Ryan explained in a post-vote statement.
The whip process among House Republicans was relatively light. After the Senate passed the plan by an 89–8 margin at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, House Republicans felt pressure to bring the bill to the floor, but they didn’t immediately embrace the Senate’s proposal. It was only after two caucus meetings on Tuesday that a slew of GOP members finally committed to “aye.” Boehner, who shared his own personal misgivings about the negotiations at an earlier meeting, warned his colleagues before the vote that Senate Democrats would likely kill any spending-related amendments.
“The speaker told people to vote as they wished,” says Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, a top Boehner ally and the chairman of the appropriations committee. “He did not take part in the negotiations for the Senate-passed bills, he made that clear, and he allowed members to make up their own minds on the bill.”
Before the Senate deal was brought to the floor, there was talk about potentially sending an amendment of spending cuts over to the Senate, but that idea fizzled during a whip count. In the end, it was a clean, up-or-down vote on the Biden-McConnell plan.
And it passed. “We’ll fight another day,” said Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, an opponent of the Biden-McConnell agreement, as he left the House chamber. “The debt ceiling is coming up soon. That’s a good time to get some real reforms.”