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After Midnight Deadline, Senate Approves Last-Ditch Cliff Deal

Senate Democrats — yielding to an eleventh-hour lobbying plea from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — grudgingly voted in the early hours of Tuesday morning for a fiscal cliff deal most members dislike but concede will be in the country’s best interest with taxes set to increase for all Americans.

Biden traveled to the Capitol late Monday evening after negotiating with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on an agreement (HR 8) that would continue current tax rates for income less than $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for households as well as permanently extend several other tax provisions and delay by two months scheduled across-the-board automatic spending cuts.

The Senate passed the package 89-8, sending it to the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, will have to wrangle enough GOP votes to pair with House Democrats to send the bill to the president’s desk.

Three Democrats, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and five Republicans, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, voted against the measure. Three Senators — Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Jim DeMint of South Carolina — did not vote.

Despite their deep concerns, Senate Democrats accepted the package with personal assurances from Biden that President Barack Obama will take a hard line against the GOP in future budget and debt limit negotiations, which are likely to begin again in earnest this month. It took hours between Biden departing the Capitol and the actual vote, as senators awaited scoring of the bill by the Congressional Budget Office.

Although an agreement was reached in principle before Dec. 31 ended, the Senate’s work extended into New Year’s Day.

“It’s a controversial package. But we knew that it was going to be a difficult challenge,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “We have to pass it for the good of the country.”

But Durbin indicated that the plan’s failure to address the debt limit would set up “the next cliff” in early 2013.

Members exiting the evening meeting with Biden in the ornate Mansfield Room, just off the Senate floor, said the vice president promised uneasy senators that Obama would not allow Republicans to use future debt limit increases as a way to exact further spending cuts. The president offered cuts in exchange for a debt ceiling increase earlier in the fiscal cliff talks.

Several Senate Democratic aides, clearly disgruntled by the White House’s bilateral negotiations with Senate Republicans, expressed skepticism that Obama would stand up to the GOP on the debt ceiling. Earlier in the evening, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner sent a letter to congressional leaders saying that the government has reached its borrowing limit. The Treasury will use extraordinary measures over the next weeks to months to buy lawmakers more time, but a cloud of doubt hung over the Capitol as 2012 inched toward 2013 and leaders again proved incapable of negotiating a broader debt and deficit reduction agreement.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he was not pleased with how the deal came together, but he echoed Durbin’s sentiment that it was important for Congress to act to prevent middle-class tax increases.

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