House approves 'fiscal cliff' deal; bill headed to Obama's desk

The House late Tuesday night voted to approve a sweeping tax deal to prevent the most significant effects of the "fiscal cliff," overcoming Republican resistance to raising income tax rates on the wealthiest earners.

The 257-167 vote capped off a day of high drama in the Capitol, as Republican leaders considered and then quickly abandoned a plan to attach steep spending cuts to a measure passed overwhelmingly by the Senate early Tuesday morning.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) voted in favor of the legislation, splitting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the Budget Committee chairman and former Republican vice presidential nominee, voted yes. 

Finished just over 36 hours before the 112th Congress adjourns, the legislation now goes to President Obama for his signature.

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The bill indefinitely extends marginal tax rates on annual family income up to $450,000, lifts the top capital gains and dividends rates to 20 percent, extends unemployment insurance benefits and includes a host of other tax provisions.

It delays automatic spending cuts for two months, setting up another fiscal showdown over replacing those cuts, raising the debt ceiling and funding the federal government.

For Boehner, the vote ended a nightmarish two-month stretch during which he failed to strike a post-election grand bargain with Obama, scrapped a vote on his own fiscal plan because of a Republican mutiny and ultimately was forced to sit on the sidelines as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hammered out a final deal with Vice President Biden.

The post-election period was not much better for Congress as a whole. With economists warning that going over the fiscal cliff could send the U.S. economy back into recession, Democratic and Republican leaders bickered until the eleventh hour and technically missed the Jan. 1 deadline for preventing a sharp tax hike.

The Senate approved its bill in the early morning hours as most Americans were celebrating the New Year, forcing the House to accept it or risk the wrath of taxpayers and the markets.

After a personal pitch Tuesday afternoon from Biden, House Democrats broadly supported the measure.

House Republicans, meanwhile, nearly revolted.

The party met behind closed doors for more than three hours over two separate conclaves, where rank-and-file members lambasted the measure for its lack of spending cuts.

Cantor told members he could not support the bill, while Boehner said he would personally vote for the Senate measure if Republicans lacked the votes to amend it.

Boehner and his leadership team assessed support within his conference for amending the bill by adding more than $300 billion in spending cuts, but when they determined they could not muster enough Republican votes, they moved quickly to bring up the unchanged Senate bill for a vote.

But House Republicans came to realize over the course of the afternoon that an amended bill was likely to be greeted by an empty Senate chamber. Senate Democrats warned that they would not consider the bill again, meaning a House vote to amend the measure would have, in effect, killed it for the 112th Congress, risking a negative market reaction on Wednesday.

By nightfall, even staunch opponents of the Senate bill were calling for it to come for a vote.

In the end, 85 Republicans voted for the fiscal-cliff bill and 151 voted no. There were 172 Democratic yes votes, and 16 Democrats voted no. 

"I would be opposed to the amendment … because I just think you would just draw this thing out and create more problems and chaos," conservative Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said prior to the vote. "Ultimately, the Senate would reject it anyway, so I think we need to vote up or down on the Senate version."

In an abbreviated debate on the House floor, each side found elements to like — and hate — about the compromise. In a signal of Republican sentiment, neither Boehner nor Cantor spoke in favor of the bill on the floor.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, cast the bill as one that would cement in place the George W. Bush-era tax policy and create a bridge to comprehensive tax reform.

"I rise today to urge what a colleague from Georgia called a 'legacy vote' — making permanent the tax cuts Republicans enacted back in 2001 and 2003," Camp said. "I couldn't agree more and let me say why — because we are making permanent tax policies Republicans originally crafted.

"This legislation settles the level of revenue Washington should bring in. Next, we need to make the tax code simpler and fairer for families and small businesses."

Camp's counterpart, ranking Democrat Sandy Levin (Mich.), hailed the precedent-breaking move of House Republicans to back higher tax rates.

"This legislation breaks the iron barrier that for far too long has prevented additional tax revenues from the very wealthiest," Levin said. "It raises $620 billion in revenue by achieving the president's goal of asking the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to pay more while protecting 98 percent of families."

Despite Camp's remarks, most Republicans voted against it, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, likely spoke for many of them during debate.

"I'd like to be speaking for this bill, but I can't," Issa said.

"I would like to vote for this because I do vote for lower taxes," he said. "But the other day in conference, one of my colleagues pointed out that in fact you're spending the money; you're taxing our future generation."

— Erik Wasson, Molly K. Hooper and Mike Lillis contributed.

— This report was originally published at 3:14 p.m. and was last updated at 11:01 p.m.