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House sends Obama fiscal cliff bill to sign: How it passed, the inside story

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WASHINGTON -- The drawn-out fiscal cliff drama ended Tuesday night with the House sending President Barack Obama legislation averting tax hikes that would have socked every earner in the nation.

The bill, meeting on New Year's Day, passed the House on a 257-167 bipartisan vote, coming with only hours to spare since the new Congress is being sworn-in at noon Thursday.

Shortly after the bill was passed, Obama talked about the "messy nature of the process" of the past few weeks that led to the compromise. Minutes later, he departed to fly back to Hawaii to resume his holiday vacation with his family.

"The fact is the deficit is still too high and we are still investing too little in the things that we need for the economy to grow as fast as it should," said Obama.

He noted that at earlier stages, he tried with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for a bigger deal. "Unfortunately, there just wasn't enough support or time for that kind of large agreement in a lame duck session of Congress."

Obama also dared Republicans to trigger another battle over the looming need to raise the debt ceiling. Congressional Republicans are already planning to do this to try to dictate spending cuts.

"I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they have already racked up through the laws they have passed," said Obama.

The president had yet to set a date to sign Tuesday's bill.

Highlights of the deal call for income-tax rates to rise for individuals with incomes above $400,000 and married couples who earn above $450,000 -- a level that represents a Democratic concession -- since Obama had campaigned on boosting taxes on households making more than $250,000. Capital gains taxes would also rise for these higher-income earners.

Estates above $5 million would be taxed more -- from 35 percent to 40 percent, despite efforts by the GOP for no increase. Unemployment benefits set to expire would be extended for one more year.

Had Congress taken no action, federal tax hikes and a series of deep cuts in Pentagon and domestic spending would have started to be implemented starting Wednesday. Under the deal, those cuts will be postponed for two months.

And while Obama prevailed in his quest to have the wealthy pay more, the price he paid is another exhausting battle in a few weeks over spending cuts, this time linked to raising the nation's debt ceiling.

The vote came after a chaotic and historic 24 hours on Capitol Hill, starting at about 2 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday when the Senate approved -- on a 89-8 bipartisan roll call -- a fiscal cliff deal negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Less than 12 hours later, the deal almost unraveled when conservative GOP House members -- some with roots in the Tea Party movement -- led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said at a closed-door meeting they would not support the Senate bill because it did not cut spending enough.

The internal GOP wrangling magnified festering divisions between Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). If the House GOP derailed the bipartisan Senate deal, House Republicans were exposed to the very real political possibility that they would be blamed for saddling everyone with tax hikes in order to preserve tax breaks for top earners.

At a second closed-door meeting of GOP House members on Tuesday afternoon, moderate members who spoke out, including Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), urged colleagues to take a reality check and not throw out the tax package.

The breakthrough came when Boehner made two key decisions. In order to address the concerns of the conservatives, he whipped, or polled, GOP members, asking them if they would support an amendment with deeper spending cuts. It failed to win support.

Next -- and most crucial -- Boehner allowed an up-or-down vote, putting aside Tuesday night governing through the "Hastert Rule," named for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) whereby no legislation gets to the floor not supported by the party in power.

Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been urging the up-or-down vote knowing that there would be enough Democratic votes to get to the 217 needed for passage. While there was some angst among Democratic progressives, there was no serious threat of Democratic defections.

The House vote ended a showdown that was entirely self-inflicted because of the congressionally imposed Dec. 31 fiscal cliff deadline installed in order to force members to act on the growing debt and deficit. Those harder questions, for now, will be left for another day.

In interviews, Democrats and GOP lawmakers from Illinois said each side gained in the compromise.

Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) called the measure a "good deal," noting that "we are keeping rates low" for most U.S. workers.

"I do hope that there are going to be other opportunities to talk about reining in spending because we have to do that," Dold said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said while Obama got his higher taxes on the wealthy, "in the long run, we do have to have a spending fight in this country."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said, "we stopped taxes going up for 98 percent of Americans. We asked the rich to pay more. For the first time in 20 years, Republicans are being force to vote for higher taxes. This is a good deal."

Said Kinzinger of the next round of fiscal fights, within a few months, "this is all going to be down-to-the-wire stuff again."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on January 2, 2013 12:58 AM.

How Illinois lawmakers voted on the fiscal cliff bill was the previous entry in this blog.

President Obama official schedule and guidance, Jan. 2, 2013 Hawaii is the next entry in this blog.

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