WASHINGTON -- Congress approved a plan to end Washington's long drama over the "fiscal cliff" late Tuesday after enough House Republicans surrendered to President Barack Obama's demand to let taxes rise on the nation's richest households.
The House voted, 257 to 167, to send the measure to the White House; the vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the legislation.
During a news briefing shortly after the House vote, Mr. Obama praised congressional leaders on securing passage of a bill to prevent a mix of tax increases and spending cuts that could have sent the economy back into recession.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and most other top GOP leaders took no public position on the measure and offered no public comment before the vote at 10:45 EST. He declined even to deliver his usual closing argument, leaving the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Dave Camp, R-Mich., to defend the measure as the "largest tax cut in American history."
How they voted ...
The book was backed by most southwestern Pennsylvania representatives: Republicans Tim Murphy, Bill Shuster and Mike Kelly supported the bill. Democrats Mike Doyle, Jason Altmire and Mark Critz also voted for the legislation.
Earlier the bill had cleared the Senate. Both Pennsylvania senators, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey, voted for the legislation.
The bill would indeed shield millions of middle-class taxpayers from tax increases set to take effect this month. But it also would let rates rise on wages and investment profits for households pulling in more than $450,000 a year, marking the first time in more than two decades that a broad tax bill has been approved with GOP support.
The measure also would keep benefits flowing to 2 million unemployed workers on the verge of losing their federal checks. And it would delay for two months automatic cuts to the Pentagon and other agencies that had been set to take effect today.
Stock markets in Asia registered relief today over the U.S. congressional vote. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rallied 1.9 percent, Australia's S&P ASX 200 surged 1.3 percent and South Korea's Kospi jumped 1.5 percent.
Many economists had warned that the scheduled tax increases and spending cuts would have plunged the economy back into recession.
Conservatives complained bitterly that the bill would raise taxes without making any significant cuts in government spending. For much of the day, the measure appeared headed for defeat as Mr. Boehner contemplated tacking on billions in spending cuts, a move that would have derailed a compromise that the White House and Senate leaders had carefully crafted.
In the end, GOP lawmakers decided not to take a gamble that could force the nation to face historic tax increases for virtually every American -- and leave House Republicans to take the blame.
"I don't know if playing chicken with the American people at this point is in the best interest of the people," said freshman Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.
The bill drew 85 votes from Republicans and 172 from Democrats, meaning well more than half of its support came from the Democratic minority.
With 151 Republicans voting "no," the GOP tally fell far short of a majority of the GOP caucus. That broke a longstanding preference by Mr. Boehner to advance only bills that could draw the support of a majority of his Republican members.
In a sign of the moment's gravity, Mr. Boehner himself cast a rare vote: He supported the bill. So did Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP's vice presidential candidate this year, who parted ways from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 presidential contender, who voted against the measure.
But other top GOP leaders voted no, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.
Mr. Boehner was humiliated just two weeks ago when the Republican rank-and-file refused to support a GOP alternative that would have permitted taxes to rise only on income over $1 million a year. But when he scheduled a vote on the Senate bill, even some of the chamber's staunchest conservatives agreed that giving up the fight was probably the best course.
"I think the best outcome is to have a clean bill, actually put it on the floor and see what the consensus of the House is," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a freshman who has opposed every major bipartisan compromise on the budget over the past two years and said he would vote against the measure.
Now that it cleared the House, the bill will proceed to the White House for Mr. Obama's signature. It calls for the top tax rate to rise immediately from 35 percent to 39.6 percent on income over $450,000 for married couples and $400,000 for single people -- the first broad tax increase in two decades and the first since 1990 to pass Congress with Republican support.
The measure would protect more than 100 million families earning less than $250,000 a year from significant income tax increases set to take effect this month -- although their payroll taxes will rise with the expiration of a temporary tax cut adopted two years ago.
In addition to avoiding much of the fiscal cliff, the measure would extend federal dairy policies through September, averting a threatened doubling of milk prices. The measure also would cancel a scheduled pay raise for members of Congress.
After weeks of partisan bickering over whether taxes should increase for anyone, the compromise bill rolled through the Senate early Tuesday in a highly unusual New Year's Day vote. The vote was 89 to 8, with both parties offering overwhelming support.
The moment served as a rare bipartisan coda to what has been one of the most rancorous, partisan Congresses in recent history. The 11 senators who are retiring received hugs and kisses from their colleagues. The current Congress ends at noon Thursday, when the new Congress will be seated, and lawmakers would have been forced to scrap the fiscal cliff legislation and start over.
Three Democrats voted against the measure: Tom Harkin of Iowa, Thomas Carper of Delaware and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Mr. Bennet complained that the bill would do little to reduce record budget deficits. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the measure would cause the national debt to be $4 trillion higher by 2022 than if all of the cliff's tax increases and spending cuts had been allowed to take effect.
Five Senate Republicans also rejected the measure, including tea party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Mr. Rubio.
But 40 others voted for it, including such GOP leaders on tax-and-spending policy as Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ronald Johnson of Wisconsin, a tea party star who frequently consults with House conservatives.
Neither party was entirely happy with the bill. While conservatives complained about new taxes and a lack of spending reductions, liberals complained about its provisions regarding inherited estates.
Although the tax rate would rise from 35 percent to 40 percent, estates worth as much as $5 million -- $10 million for married couples -- would go untaxed. And an inflation adjustment would guarantee that the size of the exemption would grow to $15 million for couples by the end of the decade.
Still, House Democrats largely embraced the measure, which was negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and endorsed by Mr. Obama. After receiving a point-by-point 90-minute briefing from Mr. Biden on Tuesday, Democrats rallied around the package.
But it was a different story among House Republicans, who at first appeared to strongly oppose it. In the early afternoon, the GOP gathered for the first of two lengthy closed-door briefings in the basement of the Capitol.
There, Mr. Boehner told members that he wanted to hear their views but would not take a position. Mr. Cantor, meanwhile, "forcefully" aired concerns that the measure would raise taxes but not cut spending. Afterward, Mr. Cantor emerged and told reporters: "I do not support the bill."
That view was widespread in the room, where House members vented their frustrations at the Senate for foisting the arrangement upon them.
First Published January 2, 2013 5:00 AM