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Roll Call

Fiscal Cliff Deal Limps Across Finish Line in House

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Though House passage of a bill averted the fiscal cliff for now, Boehner, center, appears weakened by the path taken.

The Congress that convened two years ago under the war cries of the tea party is slowly coming to an end with a Champagne-less whimper on New Year’s Day 2013.

The House voted late Tuesday evening, in a rare holiday session, to pass a fiscal cliff bill brokered without the involvement of the GOP majority and with far less than half of their votes.

The bill (HR 8) was amended by the Senate in the early morning hours on an 89-8 vote, carrying language crafted over the holiday weekend by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The 257-167 roll call in the humbled House concluded close to 11 p.m., with 172 Democratic votes and only 85 Republicans, fewer of their own conference than GOP leaders hoped for perhaps, but more than enough to clear the necessary majority to send the legislation to President Barack Obama’s desk.

“Am I having a nightmare, or what?” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio could be heard saying on the House floor, perhaps in jest. Boehner voted for the measure. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois all voted against it. Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who has largely remained quiet during the debate over the last few weeks, voted for the legislation.

The speaker is undoubtedly weakened. For the time being, the fiscal cliff is averted, although most of the day was spent suspended over it. But the lingering ill will and distrust between the two parties, and indeed within the Republican Party, is as potent as ever. Boehner now slumps into the 113th Congress with gavel firmly in hand but with scant ability to wield its power to control his conference.

The path leading up to this rare, albeit grudgingly bipartisan, outcome wound through a series of bizarre twists and turns, with House Republicans effectively neutering their lead negotiator, leaving themselves no choice but to acquiesce to the Senate’s will or risk economic and political catastrophe.

“This vote is a very clear indicator that Republicans are not running Washington, D.C., that Democrats are still in charge and we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” said GOP Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who represented the historic freshman class as one of its two leadership representatives in the 112th Congress.

In the end, Boehner convened a closed-door meeting with his conference — the second such meeting of the day — and offered members a choice: keep fighting or give in. Republicans could have amended the Senate-passed bill with spending cuts that the Senate pledged not to take up — an idea most Republicans initially found attractive. But in the end, they chose the latter route.

It cannot be said that the conference did not go out swinging. The blows, however, landed more often on their own leader than on the opposing party.

McCarthy led a last-minute whip count to round up support for an amendment to the Senate bill that would have mirrored a bill the House has already passed twice to offset sequester spending cuts with domestic spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

After trying to sell the conference on the plan during an afternoon vote series, it became clear that even the fighting option — amending the Senate bill — could not garner the requisite support among Republicans to pass.

But even leadership-friendly members found the whip effort halfhearted,with a war-weary GOP leadership more eager to exit the 112th Congress than fight on in vain. Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman C.W. Bill Young of Florida said he suspected leadership would just as soon accept the Senate plan than earnestly sell their members on the amendment.

“I think they would be happy if they do not get enough votes on the whip check,” he said. “I think they would be happy to get some closure.”

So House Republicans turned their back on Boehner once again, as they did last month when he brought forward his “plan B” gamble, which was meant to be a show of strength but ended up being his undoing in the negotiations.

The perception that they would raise taxes hung too heavy over the Congress who pledged never to do so. Even the promise to vote on spending cuts could not bring around enough members.

As if to add insult to injury, the House was scheduled to vote Wednesday, the last full day of the 112th Congress, on supplemental spending for those stricken by Superstorm Sandy. The funds had no offsets.

But in what may prove a final show of defiance, or just a nod to their weary members, leaders were telling the rank and file that votes on the spending bill are “very unlikely,” according to a GOP aide.

That fight may have to wait until Thursday, when the 113th Congress gavels in.

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