Bill to avert fiscal cliff heads to House

WASHINGTON (AP) — Squarely in the spotlight,

House Republicans were deciding their next move Tuesday after the

Senate overwhelmingly

approved compromise legislation negating a fiscal cliff of

across-the-board tax increases and sweeping spending cuts to the

Pentagon and other government agencies.

House Speaker John Boehner met with

rank-and-file GOP lawmakers to gauge support for the accord, and an aide

said GOP leaders

would not decide their course until a second meeting later in the

day. That suggested that House voting might not occur early.

Vice President Joe Biden tried selling the

deal in a separate closed-door gathering of House Democrats. Biden was

reprising

his role of Monday night, when he pushed Democratic senators to

back the agreement that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch

McConnell, R-Ky., had brokered hours earlier.

In a New Year's drama that climaxed in the middle of the night, the Senate endorsed the legislation by 89-8 early Tuesday.

It would prevent middle-class taxes from

going up but would raise rates on higher incomes. It would also block

spending cuts

for two months, extend unemployment benefits for the long-term

jobless, prevent a 27 percent cut in fees for doctors who treat

Medicare patients and prevent a spike in milk prices.

The measure ensures that lawmakers will have to revisit difficult budget questions in just a few weeks, as relief from painful

spending cuts expires and the government requires an increase in its borrowing cap.

Boehner, R-Ohio, pointedly refrained from endorsing the agreement, though he's promised a vote on it or a GOP alternative

right away. The exact timing of the vote was uncertain.

As the House staged a rare New Year's Day session, it was clear that there were divisions among lawmakers from both parties.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., called it "a bad deal for America." Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said approving it would "show the

American people that this Congress isn't broken."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that while he might vote for it, "I won't do it thinking we've accomplished anything here

today, other than the smallest finger in a dike that in fact has hundreds of holes in it."

Leaving the meeting of House Democrats, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expressed support for the agreement.

"I am one of the most progressive members and I'm going to vote for it," he said.

The measure is the first significant

bipartisan tax increase since 1990, when former President George H.W.

Bush violated his

"read my lips" promise on taxes. It would raise an additional $620

billion over the coming decade when compared with revenues

after tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003, during the Bush

administration. But because those policies expired at midnight Monday,

the measure is officially scored as a whopping $3.9 trillion tax

cut over the next decade.

Allowed to lapse was a 2 percentage point

cut in the Social Security payroll tax first enacted in late 2010 to

help prod consumer

spending and goose the economy. It meant an extra $1,000 in the

wallets of typical families earning $50,000 annually.

An extension of the cut — which temporarily reduced the tax to 4.2 percent — lacked strong support from both parties, including

the White House.

President Barack Obama praised the agreement after the Senate's vote.

"While neither Democrats nor Republicans got

everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our

country

and the House should pass it without delay," Obama said in a

statement. "This agreement will also grow the economy and shrink

our deficits in a balanced way — by investing in our middle class,

and by asking the wealthy to pay a little more."

The sweeping Senate vote exceeded

expectations — tea party conservatives like Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Ron

Johnson, R-Wis.,

backed the measure — and would appear to grease enactment of the

measure despite lingering questions in the House, where conservative

forces sank a recent bid by Boehner to permit tax rates on incomes

exceeding $1 million to go back to Clinton-era levels.

In the Senate, three Democrats and five Republicans voted against the legislation.

"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," said a statement by Boehner and other top GOP leaders.

Lawmakers hope to resolve any uncertainty over the fiscal cliff before financial markets reopen Wednesday. It could take lots

of Democratic votes to pass the measure and overcome opposition from tea party lawmakers.

Under the Senate deal, taxes would remain

steady for the middle class but rise at incomes over $400,000 for

individuals and

$450,000 for couples — levels higher than President Barack Obama

had campaigned for in his successful drive for a second term

in office. Some liberal Democrats were disappointed that the White

House did not stick to a harder line, while other Democrats

sided with Republicans to force the White House to partially

retreat on increases in taxes on multi-million-dollar estates.

The measure also allocates $24 billion in

spending cuts and new revenues to defer, for two months, some $109

billion worth

of automatic spending cuts that were set to slap the Pentagon and

domestic programs starting this week. That would allow the

White House and lawmakers time to regroup before plunging very

quickly into a new round of budget brinkmanship, certain to

revolve around Republican calls to rein in the cost of Medicare

and other government benefit programs.

Officials also decided at the last minute to use the measure to prevent a $900 pay raise for lawmakers due to take effect

this spring.

Even by the dysfunctional standards of government-by-gridlock, the activity at both ends of historic Pennsylvania Avenue was

remarkable as the administration and lawmakers spent the final hours of 2012 haggling over long-festering differences.

Republicans said McConnell and Biden had

struck an agreement Sunday night but that Democrats pulled back Monday

morning. Democrats

like Tom Harkin of Iowa said the agreement was too generous to

upper-bracket earners. Obama's longstanding position was to

push the top tax rate on family income exceeding $250,000 from 35

percent to 39 percent.

"No deal is better than a bad deal. And this look like a very bad deal," said Harkin.

The measure would raise the top tax rate on

large estates to 40 percent, with a $5 million exemption on estates

inherited

from individuals and a $10 million exemption on family estates. At

the insistence of Republicans and some Democrats, the exemption

levels would be indexed for inflation.

Taxes on capital gains and dividends over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples would be taxed at 20 percent,

up from 15 percent.

The bill would also extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed for an additional year at a cost of $30 billion,

and would spend $31 billion to prevent a 27 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

Another $64 billion would go to renew tax

breaks for businesses and for renewable energy purposes, like tax

credits for energy-efficient

appliances.

Despite bitter battling over taxes in the

campaign, even die-hard conservatives endorsed the measure, arguing that

the alternative

was to raise taxes on virtually every earner.