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.
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.
“I’ll be working next year to get a bigger agreement,” Baucus said. He will likely be a chief negotiator if Congress decides to tackle larger tax code reform. “There’s a lot more to be done,” he said.
Other members walked quickly out of the room to avoid the swarms of reporters trying to conduct their own whip counts. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who spoke out against the deal on the floor earlier in the day, said he was leaning toward voting “no.” Others indicated they would swallow the bitter pill handed to them by their own White House and come back to try again for better in 2013.
Democratic leaders did their best to spin the evening in their favor, downplaying any fractures that might have been in the room for the closed-door meeting, which lasted more than an hour.
“Vice President Biden, he was very persuasive, but he did not have to do that much convincing,” said Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Sen. Reid basically said that each person could vote the way their conscience says. But as I said, I think when people walked into this room, most of them had made up their mind even though they disliked one provision or another, didn’t like the whole package, thought it was lacking this, thought it was lacking that, that it was better than going over the cliff.”
Citing the president’s remarks from earlier Monday, Schumer also reiterated Democrats would not negotiate anything for the debt ceiling and will insist on additional revenue alongside spending cuts in future deals.
Though liberal Democrats were the most outspoken detractors of the deal brokered by Biden and McConnell, there also was latent concern among those concerned with their electoral chances in 2014. The small package now means that there could be multiple, difficult debt votes throughout 2013. In the 112th Congress, Reid was careful to protect his in-cycle Members from potentially harmful votes. The imminent agreement this week could make that a more difficult challenge for the 113th Congress.
Still, Biden emerged optimistic, saying, “I feel very, very good. I think you’ll get a very good vote tonight.” But he cautioned about predicting how the House might vote on the package.
Even though Senate passed the measure overwhelmingly, House leaders made no promises beyond pledging to bring it to the floor.
“The House will honor its commitment to consider the Senate agreement if it is passed. Decisions about whether the House will seek to accept or promptly amend the measure will not be made until House members — and the American people — have been able to review the legislation,” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.
Similarly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did not make any predictions about how much support her caucus would provide, saying in a statement earlier Monday night, “When a final agreement is reached and passed by the Senate, I will present it to the House Democratic Caucus.”
Emily Ethridge, Matt Fuller and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.