WASHINGTON — Legislation to negate a fiscal cliff of across-the-board tax increases and sweeping spending cuts to the Pentagon and other government agencies is headed to the GOP-dominated House after bipartisan, middle-of-the-night approval in the Senate capped a New Year's Eve drama unlike any other in the annals of Congress.
The measure cleared the Senate on an 89-8 vote early this morning, hours after Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sealed a deal.
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.
House Speaker John Boehner pointedly refrained from endorsing the agreement, though he's promised a vote on it or a GOP alternative right away.
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.
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.
“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.
“I reluctantly supported it because it sets in stone lower tax rates for roughly 99 percent of American taxpayers,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “With millions of Americans watching Washington with anger, frustration and anxiety that their taxes will skyrocket, this is the best course of action we can take to protect as many people as possible from massive tax hikes.”
Highlights of bill averting 'fiscal cliff'
The House is expected to vote on the bill today or Wednesday.
• Income tax rates: Extends decade-old tax cuts on incomes up to $400,000 for individuals, $450,000 for couples. Earnings above those amounts would be taxed at a rate of 39.6 percent, up from the current 35 percent. Extends Clinton-era caps on itemized deductions and the phase-out of the personal exemption for individuals making more than $250,000 and couples earning more than $300,000.
• Estate tax: Estates would be taxed at a top rate of 40 percent, with the first $5 million in value exempted for individual estates and $10 million for family estates. In 2012, such estates were subject to a top rate of 35 percent.
• Capital gains, dividends: Taxes on capital gains and dividend income exceeding $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for families would increase from 15 percent to 20 percent.
• Alternative minimum tax: Permanently addresses the alternative minimum tax and indexes it for inflation to prevent nearly 30 million middle- and upper-middle income taxpayers from being hit with higher tax bills averaging almost $3,000. The tax was originally designed to ensure that the wealthy did not avoid owing taxes by using loopholes.
• Other tax changes: Extends for five years Obama-sought expansions of the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, and an up-to-$2,500 tax credit for college tuition. Also extends for one year accelerated "bonus" depreciation of business investments in new property and equipment, a tax credit for research and development costs and a tax credit for renewable energy such as wind-generated electricity.
• Unemployment benefits: Extends jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed for one year.
• Cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors: Blocks a 27 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors for one year. The cut is the product of an obsolete 1997 budget formula.
• Social Security payroll tax cut: Allows a 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax first enacted two years ago to lapse, which restores the payroll tax to 6.2 percent.
• Across-the-board cuts: Delays for two months $109 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts set to start striking the Pentagon and domestic agencies this week. Cost of $24 billion is divided between spending cuts and new revenues from rule changes on converting traditional individual retirement accounts into Roth IRAs.